Would-Be Bombers Die in Explosion

Two Palestinians were killed Friday night when their car blew up just inside Israel, close to the border with the West Bank, police said.

The police believe the two planned to cause a powerful explosion inside one of the nearby Israeli cities, police spokesman Yoram Zamir said. He said the bomb apparently went off prematurely.

The Palestinians had crossed into Israel from the northern West Bank at an army checkpoint near the village of Mei Ami.

Earlier Friday, Israeli forces entered Palestinian areas in the West Bank to arrest suspected militants, and Israeli leaders doubted they could comply with a U.S. request to ease restrictions on Palestinians.

Israeli forces moved into the village of Tamoun in the pre-dawn hours, searching for militants, the mayor said. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the operation was ordered because Tamoun is "a concentration of people who are planning attacks in Israel."

Tamoun is six miles from the Jewish settlement of Hamra, where an armed Palestinian infiltrated Wednesday night, killing a soldier, a woman and her disabled daughter before soldiers shot him dead. The military said the purpose of the incursion was to "hit terrorists and the terrorist infrastructure."

Also, Israeli forces entered a Palestinian neighborhood in the city of Hebron and arrested a leading activist from the militant Islamic Jihad, Jamal Shehadeh, the military said. A statement said Palestinians fired on the troops as they left, but no one was hurt.

After daybreak, two Israeli tanks and a bulldozer entered a neighborhood of the city of Nablus, taking over a building and forcing three families to leave, witnesses said. The building overlooks the city from a hilltop.

The military said soldiers seized positions and tightened their siege because Nablus "has become a focus of terrorism," and the Palestinian who attacked Hamra came from Nablus.

Late Thursday, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a Palestinian security compound in Nablus. The military said the airstrike was retaliation for the attack in Hamra. Peres said the Israeli military "had several successes in preventing infiltrations in the last two or three days." On Wednesday, a Palestinian bomber on a bus was overpowered near Jerusalem before he could set off his explosives.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli operations. "I see it as a part of the continuing Israeli aggression to destroy the peace process and to destroy the Palestinian Authority," he said.

The latest Israeli incursions came as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met in Washington with President Bush. Bush said he would keep pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "to convince him that he must take serious, concrete, real steps to reduce terrorist activity in the Middle East."

Sharon called publicly for replacing Arafat with another set of leaders. In an interview published Friday, Arafat said he is not angry.

"I forgive Sharon," the Maariv daily quoted Arafat as saying. "I want to send him a message from the heart: Please, Sharon, let us sit together at the table." He suggested restarting peace talks where they ended in January 2001.

However, Sharon has ruled out talks while violence continues and has revoked an offer from his predecessor for a Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank and Gaza.

In the interview, Arafat also said he has storehouses full of weapons and had nothing to do with a shipment of arms intercepted in the Red Sea last month by Israeli commandos. The shipment was crucial in turning U.S. policy against Arafat.

Bush also expressed concern about the plight of Palestinians "who aren't involved in terror." Israeli roadblocks, closures and restrictions have crippled the Palestinian economy during more than 16 months of violence. Sharon said, "we'll try and see what can be done." Israel claims the measures are necessary for security. The Palestinians call them collective punishment.

Peres told Israel Radio that it is difficult to ease the restrictions. He said that there are many warnings of terror attacks, and "we have to do whatever we can to prevent them."

Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Arafat and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for starting the Israel-Palestinian peace process, said they believed at the time that autonomy would give the Palestinians "80 percent independence, especially in the economic sense. It never occurred to us that autonomy would worsen the Palestinians' situation."

Therefore, he said, "I believe we should quickly recognize a Palestinian state to handle their lives." Sharon has said a Palestinian state will be created one day, but has ruled out negotiations while violence continues.

In violence Thursday, a Palestinian was killed when a bomb exploded near an Israeli checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Palestinian security officials said. They said it was possible that he was planting the bomb when it went off. No Israelis were hurt.

Relatives said the bomber was Ihab Habib, 22, from Bethlehem.

The military imposed a closure on Bethlehem on Friday, Palestinians said, preventing people from entering or leaving.