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Israel Increases Military Grip on West Bank - 2001-10-22

Israeli forces are tightening their stranglehold on six towns in the West Bank in the largest military operation against the Palestinians in years. At least 23 Palestinians have died in five days of fierce fighting.

Israeli tanks drove deeper into the West Bank town of Ramallah, with bulldozers destroying the headquarters of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17 security service.

Tanks also took up positions in the Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Gun battles erupted in both places as the military strengthened its grip on Palestinian population centers in the West Bank following last week's assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

It is the largest operation against the Palestinians since the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has claimed responsibility for the assassination and Israel is demanding that the suspects be extradited.

The Palestinian Authority has outlawed the military wing of the group, but has rejected the ultimatum to turn over suspects to Israel. Palestinians say they have arrested about 20 members of the organization so far.

The Palestinians are charging the military raids on six West Bank towns are designed to destroy the Palestinian Authority. Israeli leaders deny the accusation and say the army has no intention of permanently re-occupying areas handed over to Palestinian control.

They say the incursions were launched because Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has failed to crackdown on militants who are attacking Israelis.

Diplomats from the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia met with Mr. Arafat Monday and urged him to crack down on terrorism.

The diplomats are also calling on Israel to immediately withdraw forces from Palestinian-ruled areas.

In Jerusalem Monday a disgruntled Palestinian car mechanic, initially identified by police as a terrorist, wounded four people in a shooting spree before being killed by an Israeli soldier.

Police now say the man wounded his former employer in a dispute over money and then began shooting wildly as he ran down the street in the Talpiot area, a district of car shops and shopping malls.