Israeli troops have shot dead four armed Palestinian militants during gun-battles in the northern West Bank. The fighting erupted during an Israeli raid Thursday in search of wanted Palestinians.
Israeli troops hunting for militants Thursday came under attack in the casbah or old quarter of the West Bank city of Nablus. The Israeli army says that one man tried to run at the soldiers with a bomb and three gunmen opened fire on them from a rooftop. The troops, backed by armored vehicles, returned fire in some of the fiercest fighting in the West Bank in recent weeks.
The Israeli army says the operation inside Nablus is aimed at arresting members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, an armed wing of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. The army says that members of the organization had been planning to send suicide bombers to carry out attacks inside Israel.
David Baker, an official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, says Nablus has become, in his words, a hub of terror activity. He says that since early October Israel has blocked 13 attempted suicide bombing missions, originating from inside the city.
Mr. Baker says the operation in Nablus is necessary to prevent more innocent Israeli civilians from being killed.
The fighting comes just hours before Mr. Sharon is due to deliver a policy speech setting out his vision for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli officials say Mr. Sharon will reaffirm his commitment to the international road map to peace plan, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.
At the same time, he is expected to say Israel is also prepared to take unilateral steps to bolster its security -- in the event that peace talks with the Palestinians continue to be deadlocked.