Israeli tanks rattled into the Palestinian city of Jenin in the West Bank, opening fire and leveling the main police station early Tuesday, witnesses and Palestinian security sources said.
The incursion into Jenin — following two suicide bombings in less than a week — was the first time Israeli forces have entered the center of a Palestinian controlled city in 10 months of hostilities. Israel said the bombers were dispatched from Jenin.
The Israeli military said its tanks and bulldozers destroyed the structure and then withdrew. Palestinians appealed to the U.N. Security Council for protection.
About 10 tanks rumbled into the city from an Israeli base just outside of Jenin. They stopped in front of several key Palestinian buildings on or near the main square of the city, said Haider Irshad, the vice governor of Jenin.
The tanks concentrated their fire on the police headquarters, about 200 yards from the square, and bulldozers were also called in to help with the destruction of the building, Irshad said.
Tanks moved in front of the governor's office and general headquarters for the security services, but did not open fire, he said.
Palestinian gunmen fired at the Israeli tanks, witnesses said. Israeli troops did not leave their tanks during the operation, and no Israeli ground troops were seen in the city, Irshad said.
Israeli helicopters flew above the city during the operation, but did not appear to fire, witnesses added.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
In a statement, the Israeli military said its forces attacked because of a "string of terror attacks, including the (suicide bombing) in Kiryat Motzkin, which was directed by the terror organizations in Jenin." The statement charged that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is not taking steps to stop the attacks.
Tuesday's violence followed in the wake of a Sunday evening suicide bombing that injured 20 people in a restaurant in a suburb of the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. The assailant, from the militant group Islamic Jihad, was killed.
On Thursday, a member of the militant Hamas group blew himself up in a packed restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, killing himself and 15 other people.
To retaliate for the Jerusalem attack, Israeli police last week seized the Orient House, the unofficial Palestinian political headquarters in east Jerusalem.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denounced the latest Israeli incursion. "This is part of (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's campaign to undermine the peace process and undermine the Palestinian Authority," he told The Associated Press.
Erekat said the Palestinian representative is in touch with the president of the Security Council, appealing for international forces to protect the Palestinians, "because this is the only way out."
Israeli forces have briefly entered Palestinian-controlled territory on several occasions during the more than 10 months of Mideast fighting.
In most cases, it involved forays into relatively open areas in the Gaza Strip. Tuesday's incursion was the first time the Israeli forces entered a built-up area in a Palestinian-controlled city.
Palestinians on Monday observed a general strike, and demonstrators scuffled with Israeli police at Orient House.
The United States has criticized the Israeli takeover of Orient House as a "political escalation." Arab nations have expressed fury with the move.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war along with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other territories. Israel annexed east Jerusalem days after the war, unlike the other areas. Though the annexation has not been recognized by any other country, Israel insists that the whole city is its capital.
The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to create.
"Jerusalem is ours," shouted about 2,000 Palestinians marching in the West Bank city of Nablus. About 3,000 Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza City, burning a coffin labeled "Sharon," a reference to Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Sharon, meanwhile, permitted Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to resume contacts with senior Palestinian officials despite the suicide bombings.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Peres denied media reports that Sharon had told him not to speak to Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat himself.
"I have the right to meet every person I think I have to, including Chairman Arafat," Peres said.
Also Monday, Israeli police shot and killed Khalil Nazaanah, a Palestinian from the West Bank village of Kufr Akab, suspected of killing an Israeli teen-ager last month.
Police said that Nazaanah was wounded during a chase and died later in the hospital.
He was suspected of killing 18-year-old Yuri Gushtzin, whose body was found with stabbing and gunshot wounds near the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 24.
At the United Nations, Nasser Al-Kidwa, the Palestinian U.N. observer, told The Associated Press that the Palestinians were beginning a diplomatic campaign to pressure Israel to end its takeover of Orient House and other key Palestinian institutions.
They want the 15-member Security Council "to reverse what happened and maybe to help save the situation as a whole," he said.
The Palestinians have twice failed to get the Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for the deployment of international observers -- a move Israel opposes and its closest ally, the United States, has blocked on the Security Council.
But last month, the United States and the other major industrial powers endorsed deploying international observers to monitor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now almost a year old, and Israel said it might agree to an increased American presence.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.