As Israeli tanks rolled into Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, Palestinian militants and police roamed the streets, erecting barricades and planting homemade mines.
Witnesses reported that some 300 to 400 tanks had surrounded the city of more than 100,000 people.
Israeli forces also took control of the Palestinian towns of Jenin and Salfit and surrounded the Jenin refugee camp, an alleged militant stronghold. Hundreds of armed men tried to fight off advancing Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships. Three militiamen, a nurse and a 13-year-old boy were killed in the fighting, according to the Palestinians.
Israeli forces have swept into six major Palestinian towns in the West Bank since Friday in what is being called “Operation Protective Wall,? an attempt, Israel says, to isolate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and root out Palestinian militants after a wave of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.
In Bethlehem, the bodies of four gunmen shot in a firefight Tuesday remain in the street near the Church of the Nativity, a site believed to have been the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Rescue workers have been unable to reach them because of constant gunfire.
Scores of Palestinian militiamen are believed to be holed up in the church, with priests, nuns and civilians also trapped inside.
The armed men forced their way into the shrine Tuesday, after hours of intense fighting with Israeli forces.
According to one Palestinian policeman, the militants are resting in pews and on the stone floor. He denied Israeli charges that shots were fired from the church.
The Israeli army said it would not use force to drive out the gunmen, but would not let them go free.
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the gunmen “abuse churches … as a place from which they can conduct their attacks on our forces.”
The Palestinian governor of Bethlehem says Israel has ignored requests to deliver food and medicine to the 200 people believed trapped in the church.
Meanwhile, the U.S. removed around 20 foreigners, including Americans and Britons, from Bethlehem in an armored convoy.
In Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Arafat remains confined to a few offices in his compound, Israeli forces have rounded up more than 800 suspected militants. Palestinian leaders have denounced the mass arrests as collective punishment, but Israel says such methods are the only way to find wanted men.
Also Wednesday, Israeli fighter jets fired on suspected Hezbollah guerrilla hideouts in southern Lebanon. Israeli officials said the strike was in response to attacks on Israeli army outposts in the disputed border area.
Hezbollah said in a statement that its fighters were engaged in “fierce confrontations” with six Israeli positions in the Chebaa Farms area, “scoring definite hits among enemy ranks.” The Israeli army reported that one Israeli was seriously wounded in the attacks.
The renewed fighting in Lebanon threatens to widen Arab-Israeli clashes outside the Palestinian territories.
Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has warned Hezbollah and Syria, which Israel says controls the guerrillas, that the current focus on Palestinian militants in the territories does not make other countries ?immune” from Israeli retaliation.