JERUSALEM – Israeli soldiers patrolling West Bank towns shot and killed three Palestinian militants Wednesday during an ongoing sweep of the area, according to the army and witnesses.
The army has been conducting stepped up operations against militants throughout the northern West Bank since mid-December, focusing heavily on the city of Nablus (search). Soldiers have killed 14 Palestinians in the city over the past three weeks.
On Wednesday, troops in Nablus killed two members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a militia loosely affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, witnesses said. It was not clear if the men, identified as Naim Atari and Aboud Kasas, had been resisting, the witnesses said.
An army spokesman said troops in Nablus shot and killed one Palestinian who drew a pistol and threatened to fire on them and a second who refused repeated commands to give himself up.
"Nablus is the hottest and most dangerous town," a senior Israeli commander told reporters in Nablus on Tuesday on condition of anonymity. "Most of the suicide bombers, most of the bombs, most of the ammunition, is in Nablus."
Troops shot and killed a third Palestinian in Tulkarem, in the northern West Bank, after he fired on troops during an arrest operation, the military said. Palestinian witnesses identified the dead man as Hisham Haraish, 21, who was affiliated with the militant Hamas (search) group.
During overnight raids in the area of Nablus and the nearby town of Jenin, troops also arrested 19 militants, the army said.
Late Tuesday, the army shot at a suspicious figure, possibly armed with an anti-tank missile, crawling toward a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. The army said it was unsure if the person was hit, and Israeli and Palestinian searches of the area revealed no body.
The continued violence came amid stalled efforts to rejuvenate the peace process aimed at ending 39 months of attacks.
Palestinians dismissed on Tuesday an Israeli list of 28 settlement outposts to be dismantled under a U.S.-backed peace plan as inadequate and deceptive.
Security sources said the 28 outposts were slated for removal under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which requires Israel to take down all outposts built since March 2001.
The Peace Now (search) watchdog group says there are at least 60 of them and several dozen others established earlier.
Palestinians charge that the outposts are part of a larger effort to prevent them from setting up a state in the West Bank and Gaza. They view all Jewish settlement in the areas as illegal.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat dismissed the list. "They don't want peace, but the continuation of the military operation and what they are doing, removing outposts here and there, which is only deception," he said Tuesday.
The list was disclosed Tuesday a day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a convention of his hawkish party that even some of the larger veteran settlements would have to be torn down under a peace accord or moved as part of a proposed unilateral plan to disengage from the Palestinians.
The shift in the thinking of Sharon — the settlers' patron for decades — underscored the effect the violence has had on Israel coupled with the U.S. push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad (search) secret service, said the willingness to remove settlements was connected to the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein, which removed the threat of attack from the east — one of the key reasons some in Israel wanted to hold on to the West Bank.
"One has to reconsider the settlements in terms of their strategic (importance) as they are today, not as they were yesterday or the day before. Strategic considerations ... change over the years," Halevy said.
Halevy, who also served as head of Sharon's National Security Council but is now out of public service, said the "road map" cannot be implemented. "We know this, and the Palestinians know this, and the United States knows this," Halevy told foreign journalists.
Noting that the plan's first target dates — stopping all violence, reforming the Palestinian Authority and setting up a provisional Palestinian state by 2003 — have passed, Halevy said the real role of the plan was to serve as a catalyst for restarting peace talks. With negotiations going in their own direction, the road map would become irrelevant, he said.
Neither side has carried out the road map's first steps, which require the Palestinians to dismantle violent groups and Israel to take down outposts and freeze settlement construction.
Also Wednesday, Israeli media reported that Israel was seeking ties with Libya — a longtime bitter foe — in the wake of the country's announcement it had given up efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.