Israel expected to set up buffer zone around West Bank

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops this week pulled out from most West Bank cities, but the job of fighting terrorism is hardly over.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday that the withdrawals marked the end of the "current phase" of Israel's battle against terror.

He also stressed that Israeli operations in the West Bank had not ended, but had "moved on to a new system of fighting terror."

Commentators interpreted this to mean that Israel would soon set up a buffer zone between Israel and portions of the West Bank.

Last week Israel completed withdrawals from Kalkilya, Tulkarm and Jenin and on Sunday pulled out of Nablus and parts of Ramallah.

After these withdrawals, the Israel Defense Force stightened blockades around West Bank cities and continued to round up suspected terrorists.

Troops also remained deployed around Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound and around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

As a condition for pulling back its troops, Israeli has demanded the handover of wanted Palestinians who have taken cover at the two sites.

Israeli officials claim that Arafat has given shelter in his compound to four suspects in last October's murder of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, as well as to a fifth Palestinian involved in the Karine-A smuggling attempt.

Palestinian officials said a trial of the four Ze'evi murder suspects began Monday in Arafat's headquarters.

In Bethlehem, Israeli and Palestinian officials met Tuesday and Wednesday in bids to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity. Israel said the Palestinian Authority still was trying to involve a third party in the negotiations.

Some 200 armed Palestinians took cover in the shrine three weeks ago.

Quoting monks who fled the compound Tuesday, Israel Radio reported that some Palestinian gunmen had beaten monks, damaged religious artifacts and stolen gold.

On Wednesday, Israeli troops killed a senior Hamas member in a clash near Hebron. Another Palestinian also was killed in the fighting, which took place while Israeli troops were conducting searches for wanted Palestinians. Two other Palestinians were detained for suspected terrorism.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops killed three Palestinians armed with explosives who approached the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, in northern Gaza. Palestinian sources said the three were teenagers.

In another development Wednesday, three Palestinians died in Gaza when a bomb they were making exploded.

Late Monday, resorting to the targeted assassinations it had used in the past, Israeli forces killed the leader of the Palestinian militia in Hebron in a helicopter strike.

Two missiles fired at his car killed Marwan Zaloum and his top aide, Samir Abu Rajoub.

Abu Rajoub was a member of Force 17, Arafat's personal guard.

Zaloum was believed to be responsible for numerous shooting attacks and bombings, including the March 2001 killing of Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old infant, in a sniper attack in Hebron.

Several hours after the Israeli helicopter strike, the bodies of three bound Palestinians, apparently suspected collaborators, were found shot to death at the same spot where Zaloum was killed.

The vigilante killings in Hebron came a day after an alleged Palestinian informer was killed and two others wounded in Ramallah.

Meanwhile, the IDF continue to round up suspected terrorists. On Tuesday, Israel security forces operating in the Kalkilya, Bethlehem and Hebron areas nabbed about 42 Palestinians.

A day earlier, soldiers troops arrested 14 suspected terrorists in the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.

On Sunday, the army said two Palestinians arrested in a roundup in the Kalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem were suspected of involvement in the murders of three Israelis.

One of the Palestinians is suspected of shooting Binyamin and Talia Kahane, the son and daughter-in-law of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, in a West Bank ambush in December 2000.

Another is suspected of killing coffee factory owner Gad Rejwan in northern Jerusalem last February.

Several other suspects arrested in Kalandia are believed to have taken part in the lynching of two Israeli army reservists in Ramallah in October 2000, Israel Radio reported.

The continued operations in the West Bank claimed the life of an Israeli soldier.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nir Krichman, 22, of Hadera, was critically wounded in the head Monday when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on security forces hunting for Hamas members near Nablus. He later died of his wounds.

Two Palestinians also were killed.

The Israeli redeployment around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank was part of an effort to create a buffer zone that would prevent terrorists from infiltrating Israel.

Israel's Security Cabinet recently approved construction of a physical barrier between Israel and Palestinian areas.

The first phase will include fences and other physical and electronic obstacles near the Palestinian cities of Tulkarm and Jenin, as well as around the greater Jerusalem area.

Advocates of a security fence have noted that few suicide bombers have been dispatched from the Gaza Strip, where such a barrier exists.