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Israel Continues Crackdown on Palestinians - 2002-09-07

Israel says its troops have defused a powerful bomb, destroyed several Palestinian weapons factories and arrested suspected militants during an overnight raid in central Gaza. The action is part of a further crackdown on Palestinian areas designed to avert attacks by militants over the Jewish New Year holiday.

Israeli troops moved into the central Gaza town of Deir el Balah in an overnight raid that lasted several hours. They say they detonated a powerful bomb and destroyed several buildings which were used as weapons factories.

Security forces have also arrested several suspected militants in both Gaza and the West Bank town of Hebron.

Israeli forces say the raid was in response to Palestinian attacks in Gaza Thursday which killed two Israeli soldiers.

Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, called the raid in Gaza an "escalation" that would only result in further violence. He said it also goes against an agreement reached between the two sides last month for a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian areas in return for a promise by the Palestinians to ensure security. That agreement began with an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but has stalled since then.

Israel has imposed a strict curfew on Palestinian areas and its soldiers are on alert for any possible militant attacks during the Jewish Rosh Hashana holiday, which began at sundown Friday.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israeli radio Saturday that he is ruling out the dismantling of any Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. He said that would be seen as a sign of weakness by the Palestinians. A day earlier, a major Israeli newspaper quoted Mr. Sharon as saying that existing peace agreements with the Palestinians are no longer valid. Palestinian officials reacted by saying that statement shows Mr. Sharon's true intentions and that he is not a man of peace.