Israel said seizing the town of Tulkarem was a necessary step to round up militants responsible for recent anti-Israeli attacks, including the deadly assault on a crowded reception hall last week that killed six Israelis.
One Palestinian was killed and 15 wounded in fighting with Israeli forces in Tulkarem as dozens of tanks rolled through the streets.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat warned the takeover “crossed all red lines.”
“Our people will never keep silence about all of these Israeli attacks,” Arafat said. Israeli tanks have surrounded Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah since Friday.
Israel said it was prepared to take on the mission it assigned Arafat: arresting the militants who have attacked Israel or could be plotting future attacks. The government hinted that other West Bank towns might be targeted next.
“In the absence of Palestinian Authority security activity, Israel has entered Tulkarem to remove that threat,” Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said.
Although Israeli troops have entered Palestinian-ruled areas many times since fighting broke out in September 2000, this is the first time Israel has taken control of an entire major Palestinian town since Palestinian self-rule began in 1994.
Witnesses said soldiers also took over offices of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian legislative council. They also established a control center at a makeshift police command post. Israel destroyed Tulkarem’s main government compound, which contained the police headquarters, last week.
Tulkarem has been home to several members of the Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia group linked to Arafat’s Fatah party. The group claimed responsibility for last week’s attack on a bat mitzvah celebration in the town of Hadera.
The group said it would continue attacks on Israelis to avenge the death of Raed Karmi, the Al Aqsa Brigades leader killed early last week by a bomb blast at his Tulkarem hideout.
Israel has not taken responsibility for the explosion, but had targeted Karmi in the past. Palestinians say Israel murdered Karmi to wreck peace negotiations.
At least 811 Palestinians and 246 Israelis have been killed since the uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000.