Israeli troops have launched a massive military incursion into the West Bank city of Nablus in a search for Palestinian militants. In various clashes and incidents in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, five Palestinians are reported to have been killed, including an activist from the militant Islamic group Hamas.
For the past few weeks, Israeli troops had been positioned around the outskirts of Nablus as they imposed a curfew on the city and its inhabitants.
In the early morning hours Friday, however, the soldiers, backed by armored vehicles and more than 100 tanks moved toward the city center. Their destination was the old part of the city, the Casbah, where Israeli security forces believe several dozen Palestinian militants are holed up.
The senior Israeli commander in Nablus said in a statement, that the aim of the operation is to eliminate a local terrorist network and bomb factories that exist there. He said the operation could last several days.
Witnesses reported clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in the town. They also reported that a number of homes were demolished. Dozens of Palestinians are reported to have been detained for questioning.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the Israeli action as a crime against humanity and has called on the United Nations to intervene.
In the West Bank village of Salem, a Hamas militant was shot dead in his home. Local residents say Amjad Jabur was killed after being handcuffed and detained. Israel says he was shot while trying to flee. Clashes also took place in the Gaza Strip.
Israel's action comes just two days after a bomb explosion in a crowded cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem killed seven people, among them five Americans. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
A senior Hamas official said Americans were not targeted at the university. Hamas says the bombing was in retaliation for an Israeli air strike on Gaza City last week, which killed a senior Hamas official along with 14 other Palestinians, including nine children.
Israel's defense minister promised swift and harsh retaliation for the university bombing and both sides have been bracing for further violence.
Israeli forces are also reported to have blown up and destroyed the homes of Palestinian militants in Hebron and Tulkarem in the West Bank.
Israeli authorities also signed expulsion orders for the brothers of two Palestinian militants accused of attacks against Israel. The two brothers are to be taken from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. Both have said they would appeal the decision.
Israel has long used the destruction of Palestinian homes as a tool to try to deter militant activity. Officials also say they hope deportation of family members will deter potential attackers by making them realize their families will also pay a price for such attacks.
Palestinians and human rights advocates criticize the Israeli policies, calling them collective punishment that is neither acceptable nor legal. In particular, Israel's deportation plans have drawn widespread international criticism, including from the United States.