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Israel completes pullout from two West Bank towns

Israeli armored vehicles guard a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli army forces on Tuesday completed their withdrawal from the West Bank towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarem after they "seriously harmed the terror infrastructure" there.

Israel Defense Forces sources now say the forces are encircling the cities and not letting any Palestinians leave.

Meanwhile, Israel Radio is reporting that the Israeli government is going to allow four Palestinians to meet Tuesday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been bottled up in his compound in Ramallah.

The Israeli withdrawal began Monday, hours after U.S. President Bush reiterated his demand for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas and after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Knesset that the overall military operation would end when the "mission was completed."

Israeli troops remain in Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and Nablus. Fighting has been intense in those cities in recent days.

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Early Tuesday, the IDF said there is a military operation now going on in the town of Dura in the West Bank. Palestinian witnesses described the action as an incursion.

Col. Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, told CNN that the army may "continue withdrawing" from other West Bank areas, but that would be contingent on Israel's gains against terrorists.

"We're not going to leave until we're making sure we are hitting hard at the terrorist infrastructure," Fogel said. "We're intent upon going through and capturing as many terrorists as we can."

He said it is Israel's goal to stop terrorists "before they get to Israeli coffee houses, Israeli restaurants and blow up innocent men, women and children."

On Monday, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer "in coordination" with Sharon had ordered troops to redeploy around Qalqilya and Tulkarem and "cordon off the cities," according to the Israeli Defense Ministry.

The ministry statement said the decision was reached "in view of the fact that the IDF operation in those cities has been completed."

The operation "seriously harmed the infrastructure of terror" and resulted in the arrests of dozens of Palestinian militants and the capture of weapons, the statement said.

Earlier in the day, President Bush had sharp words for Sharon and ordered U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni to deliver his message in person.

"I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel -- I expect there to be a withdrawal without delay," Bush said during a visit to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he spoke to volunteer groups.

The White House made clear Monday night that while it welcomed Israel's commitment to withdraw from the two towns, it did not consider the pledge enough to meet the administration's demand for a complete Israeli pullback "without delay."

"It's a start," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a statement. "As the president said last Thursday, all parties in the Middle East have responsibilities and the president expects all parties to step up to them."

Bush also said the Arab world had a responsibility to work for peace by standing up and condemning terrorism.

In his Knesset speech, Sharon told the legislators that when the operation ends, the military will withdraw to "security zones" to prevent future terrorist attacks on Israel. He did not spell out where those zones will be, but the presumption is the West Bank.

Sharon also praised the Saudi peace initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah and said he would talk with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell about a peace summit "with the responsible leaders in the Middle East." (Speech excerpts)

Meanwhile, the four Palestinians permitted by Israel to meet with Arafat are parliament speaker Ahmed Qorei, top PLO official Mahmoud Abbas, head of Preventative Security in Gaza Muhammed Dahlan, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.

The decision to allow the meeting was made following a meeting between Sharon and Zinni on Monday. Zinni met Friday with Arafat at the Ramallah compound.

And in another development, an Israeli spokesman told CNN that Powell will be allowed to meet with Arafat if he so chooses.

Powell arrives in Morocco

Powell arrived Monday in Morocco on the first stop of a Middle East trip. He is expected in Israel on Wednesday or Thursday, but officials noted his schedule could change with the situation in the Middle East.

The United Nations and the European Union both issued fresh appeals Monday for an Israeli withdrawal. (Full story on diplomatic action)

A Palestinian woman runs along a road connecting the West Bank city of Hebron and the town of Yatta.  

Chief Palestinian negotiator Erakat called Sharon's Knesset speech "disastrous."

"When he is defying, he is really defying President Bush's call for withdrawal, for stopping incursions," Erakat said. "He's saying I will delay my presence. Clearly he has resumed occupation and announced now that he will create buffer zones in areas where the Israelis will resume the occupation."

Shortly after Sharon's Knesset speech, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced an immediate halt to oil exports for 30 days or until Israeli forces unconditionally withdraw from Palestinian territories. Oil prices jumped on world markets shortly after Hussein's announcement. (Full story)

Raids in Ramallah, roundup in Nablus

In Jenin, Palestinian sources said the Israeli military was in almost total control of the city and its refugee camp. They said only one group of Palestinian gunmen was putting up resistance after a number of others gave up.

Israel Defense Forces said two of its soldiers were killed Monday in fighting in Jenin.

Israeli forces fired at least 19 missiles into the Jenin refugee camp early in the day. Soldiers used loudspeakers to warn residents to evacuate before launching the strike. When some residents refused, they were evacuated by force. Most residents were still in the camp when the strike began.

There was no immediate word on Palestinian casualties. The IDF said searches in the camp turned up explosives labs, Qassam rockets, an unexploded car bomb and mortar shells. (Full story)

In Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, Israeli troops surrounded a group of Palestinian gunmen in the casbah, the center of the city, Palestinian sources said. The IDF said "close to 100" gunmen had surrendered, and 13 weapons caches and explosives labs had been uncovered.

In Ramallah, Israeli forces raided the offices of several news organizations and one U.S. aid organization Monday, using gunfire and explosives to enter the buildings, according to eyewitnesses.

Israeli troops began their offensive in the West Bank on March 29. The operation started during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings over the Passover holiday. Israeli officials have said their goal is to capture terrorists' weapons and destroy their bomb-making capability.

While the West Bank operation continued, the IDF said it was sending more troops to its northern border with Lebanon in an attempt to control cross-border attacks from Hezbollah militants. (Full story)




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