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Tulkarm: Mideast Conflict's Latest Flashpoint - 2002-01-22

Israeli troops have stationed themselves inside the Palestinian ruled West Bank town of Tulkarm and placed a curfew on the residents. It was the first time since the start of the clashes 16 months ago that Israeli soldiers have seized control of an entire Palestinian town.

In a street with no name in Tulkarm's refugee camp, the residents flee as an Israeli tank drives toward them.

Israeli troops backed by tanks and bulldozers have seized control of the town, and have gone on house-to-house searches for suspected Palestinian militants.

Not all will be arrested.

Earlier this month, Raed Karmi, a leader of a militia of the Fatah faction in Tulkarm, was killed when a roadside bomb exploded and the Palestinians blame Israel for what they called an assassination.

Since then at least nine Israelis have died in attacks by Fatah members, who said they wanted to avenge his death.

To the Israelis, Mr. Karmi was a killer wanted in connection with the murder of at least nine Jews.

But many in Tulkarm hailed him as a hero, among them is Khaled, a farmer, who lives in the refugee camp.

"He [Mr. Karmi] was struggling day and night and he dedicated his life to defend the [Palestinian] homeland," said Mr. Khaled.

Hassan Kreisheh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council representing the Tulkarem District, told VOA the operation in Tulkarem has gone further than previous Israeli military incursions into Palestinian-ruled areas because this time, he believes, the troops intend to reoccupy the town for an indefinite period.

"In the previous times, [Israeli troops] used to come to a place for a few hours and then go out. This time they are coming to stay, they are not coming to go," he said. "So it is a long occupation. They prepared this for the last two months. The decision at either political standard level or military level has been taken to occupy the whole land."

Tulkarm is situated close to the edge of the West Bank, only a few kilometers from Israeli coastal towns, north of Tel Aviv.

Israel says that it needs to provide stronger security to prevent more Palestinians from leaving Tulkarem and slipping past military checkpoints to launch attacks inside the Jewish State. The Tulkarem raid came as a reprisal for a shooting attack last week by a Palestinian militant on a banquet hall in the Israeli town of Hadera. The gunman are believed to have set out from Tulkarem.

But the Governor of Tulkarm, Izzedin Sharif, insists his residents want to live peacefully alongside their Jewish neighbors.

He told VOA that the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has unfairly branded the Palestinians of Tulkarm terrorists.

"Since I took over as governor of Tulkarm, it was a quiet city," he said. "It was a shopping city for both the Jewish and the Arab from inside the Green Line [Israel]. Sharon now says it is now a city of terror. Since six years, I did not see any sign of terror in this city."

Mr. Sharif says the Israeli military offensive against his and other Palestinian towns is bound to reap a bitter harvest.

He says rather than strengthening security, the Israeli army's blockades are deepening the suffering and anger of the Palestinian people and sowing the seeds for future attacks.