Tanks Move Into More Palestinian Villages
NABLUS, West Bank – Israeli forces moved into more West Bank villages Saturday, shelling a Palestinian government building. As Palestinians surveyed the devastation in towns hard-hit by Israel's incursion, one man said eight relatives, including a pregnant woman, were crushed during demolitions by an Israeli bulldozer.
Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat issued a statement in Arabic condemning terrorism and a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, trying to meet U.S. conditions for a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Israel on a truce mission.
After Arafat's statement, the Islamic militant group Hamas insisted it would continue anti-Israeli attacks. "We have the full right to react without any limitation against the state terrorism of Israel," Hamas spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab said.
Sporadic fighting took place in several West Bank areas Saturday. The fiercest was in Nablus, the area's largest city, where seven Israeli tanks shelled the local Palestinian government complex, witnesses said. They said tank shells punched big holes the building.
Palestinians allege many civilians have been killed in the Israeli operation, launched March 29 to wipe out militant networks in the West Bank after a series of suicide bombings.
Israel has said it has tried to avoid civilian casualties. The military said it was not aware of the eight deaths of the Shobi family in Nablus, which one relative, Mahmoud Shobi, said occurred April 5.
Israeli forces pulled out of the town of Dahariyeh on Saturday, but the army said tanks moved into the villages of Burkin and Arabe, both near Jenin. They also took over Bier Nabala -- near Ramallah -- and Beit Eba, el-Baidan and Beit Wazan, near Nablus. Witnesses said troops occupied Hashimiyah, outside Jenin, but the army would not confirm the report.
In Burkin, soldiers used loudspeakers to warn the town's 5,000 residents not to leave their homes. Residents said about 75 families from the Jenin refugee camp -- a militant stronghold -- were in the town.
Jenin camp saw the fiercest fighting of the Israeli campaign, and troops still close off the camp, where Israel says 100 Palestinians were killed. The Palestinians say that number is far higher and accuse Israel of covering up the toll with its plan to bury the bodies. Israel denies the claim.
Soldiers also remain in four of the West Bank's biggest towns, Nablus, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin.
The Israeli campaign in the West Bank has included sweeps that Israel says have detained more than 4,000 Palestinians and netted large caches of weapons and explosives. Israel has also demolished homes and buildings deemed to be militant bases, hide-outs or explosives laboratories, and considerable damage was done to other homes, particularly in refugee camps.
In Nablus, Mahmoud Shobi, 35, said the compound of his brother and father was toppled on April 5 when Israeli bulldozers demolished an empty building next door.
Mahmoud Shobi said the demolition killed his brother Samer Shobi, 49, his pregnant wife, Nabela, 40, and the couple's three sons. He said it also killed his two sisters and 85-year-old father. He said there were no militants in the compound.
The bodies -- found late Friday and early Saturday -- were taken to the Nablus hospital. Officials there confirmed the deaths.
Israeli military officials said the only building demolished April 5 in the neighborhood was an explosives lab, and the military knew nothing about the collapse of the Shobi family compound.
The military said it was "unlikely" the demolition work collapsed the family's residence because an army engineer ensured surrounding buildings would not be in danger. People in the neighborhood were also warned about it, the army said.
Powell is pressing for a quick end to Israel's West Bank campaign, a cease-fire and a fresh start to peace negotiations.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for Friday's bombing.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, called the bombing punishment for Israel's military offensive. "If Israel thinks that after what they did in Jenin and Nablus they will not be punished, they are mistaken," Yassin said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the campaign will continue until Palestinian militias behind attacks on Israelis are crushed.
Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers were circling the church compound, and soldiers made calls through the night for the 200 armed Palestinians holed up inside to surrender.
Under the Christians' plan, the Israeli army would withdraw from the city, and the Palestinian Authority would collect the militants' weapons and allow the gunmen to go home. The Israeli Foreign Ministry would not comment on the proposal.