Israeli troops held ground in and around six West Bank cities after the Palestinian Authority failed to hand over members of the Popular Liberation Front of Palestine reportedly responsible for the assassination of Interior Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi.
In the most extensive ground action in more than a year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon deployed forces in and around Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Jenin, Ramallah, Qalqiliya, and Tul Karminto.
Most of the fighting has occurred in Bethlehem, with Israeli forces stationed several hundred yards within the city, and in the neighboring West Bank town of Beit Jala. So far, nearly 26 Palestinians and one Israeli have died in the clashes.
Amid mounting international pressure, Sharon told his cabinet yesterday that Israeli forces did not plan to stay in Palestinian territory, but that their departure would depend on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s actions.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Secretary of State Colin Powell about a potential cease-fire, but stopped short of criticizing Sharon’s offensive, as many in his left-leaning Labor Party have done.
Peres called on the international community to pressure Arafat to arrest at least a dozen of the most extreme militants.
“The only way to do it is for the leaders to send a serious message to Arafat that he has to do what he promised to do. Otherwise, if we let Arafat speak in one way and act or prevent actions in the other way, we shall not achieve it,” he said.
Peres also suggested the United States freeze the financial assets of two Palestinian extremist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as it did for groups and people associated with Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network. If the U.S. did not include the two Middle Eastern terrorist groups, he said, the legitimacy of an international coalition against terrorism would be damaged.
Others in the Labor Party announced today they would consider withdrawing their support from Sharon’s coalition government if Israeli forces pushed their deeper into Palestinian territory.
Over the weekend, Powell spoke with Sharon and urged him to withdraw troops from Palestinian territory.
“Hopefully the Israelis will be able to leave the territory that they have occupied recently. I talked to Prime Minister Sharon this morning and he said he did not plan to stay in those areas,” Powell told CNN on Sunday.
The PLO’s Supreme Security Council said it conceded to one of Sharon’s request by outlawing the military wing of the PFLP. The PFLP has claimed responsibility for Zeevi’s assassination in retaliation for the murder of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa in August.
Palestinian security officials also said they had arrested more than 20 militants since Wednesday.
However, many in the Palestinian Authority angrily accused Israel of sending in troops and tanks to overthrow Arafat.
At least 653 Palestinians and 177 Israelis have been killed since the fighting began in September 2000.