Israeli military commanders say the situation in the northern West bank towns of Tulkarem and Qalqilya is calm and they expect to take control of Nablus and Jenin by Monday after several days of fierce fighting. At least 14 Israeli soldiers and some 200 Palestinians have died in the fighting since the military operations were launched ten days ago.
Despite mounting international pressure to withdraw the troops, Israeli Major General Dan Harel says ending the operations too soon defeats the goal, which he says is to destroy terrorist networks operating in the West Bank.
"If we do it too soon, then another series of devastating terror attacks will hit Israeli cities and streets. And then we'll go in," said Gen. Harel. "Paradoxically, if we stay in and fight the terrorist infrastructure and get higher achievements, then maybe we will be able to rest [stop] a little these terrorist hits."
Gen. Harel told a news briefing the absence of suicide bombings since the start of the operation called Defensive Shield 10 days ago justifies continuing the military campaign.
But Israeli politicians predict the campaign will have to wind down when U,S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives on Friday. Mr. Powell is expected to add his political clout to ceasefire efforts but even before leaving Washington, he played down his prospects for success.
Gen. Harel says his forces control most of the West Bank but fighting continues in the refugee camps in Jenin and the heart of Nablus, known as the Casbah.
"Most of the city is under control," he insists. "The fighting area is within the Casbah, led by the Hamas top men in Nablus. There is fierce fighting. Our forces move forward very carefully. We have good achievement since the morning and I expect that the Casbah area beside the heart of the Casbah will be captured by this [Sunday] evening."
In Bethlehem, a standoff continues between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen hiding inside the Church of the Nativity. Israel says it will not attack the holy Christian shrine. The Palestinian gunmen inside refuse to surrender.
A tight curfew in Bethlehem kept Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem from attending regular Sunday church services.
Since the start of Defensive Shield, Israeli forces have been sharply criticized by the Red Cross for attacking ambulances and preventing Palestinian medical teams from reaching the injured.
After talks with the head of the International Red Cross on Sunday, Israel's deputy foreign minister says the military will buy three new ambulances for the Palestinian Red Crescent to replace those destroyed by its tanks.