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3 Wanted Palestinians Killed in Israeli West Bank Raid - 2004-04-22

Israeli troops shot and killed three wanted militants in a West Bank raid early Thursday in the third day of renewed clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli troops backed by tanks moved into the town of Tulkarem before dawn. The army said the troops fired on Palestinian gunmen who confronted them on the outskirts of the town.

Hospital sources identified the dead as members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Twenty members of the militant group were later forced to leave the Arafat headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. The expulsions were ordered to try to keep Israel from invading the compound and arresting the men. The Associated Press quoted one of the militants as saying that Israeli security officials had issued a warning to their Palestinian counterparts that they would come after the militants.

At least seven Palestinians were killed Wednesday and 40 others wounded during clashes with Israeli forces in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahia.

The Israeli military said troops were searching for militants who have been firing rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli towns in the western Negev region.

More than a dozen rockets were reported to have been fired over the past week, injuring seven Israelis.

Tensions have increased dramatically in the aftermath of Israel's assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantissi, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Jewish settlements from Gaza while maintaining them in the West Bank has also angered Palestinians, who have denounced the move as a land grab and an attempt to unilaterally impose the borders of an eventual Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended his plan to pull out settlements from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in a speech to the Israeli parliament Thursday.

He called on lawmakers to join him and support his disengagement plan. As he put it, anyone who wants Israel to initiate and not be dragged, to lead and not be led should be behind his plan.

Mr. Sharon will take his disengagement plan to his Likud party for its approval.

The plan has already won the support of President Bush. It had appeared to be favored by most Israelis until an opinion poll published in the Ha'aretz newspaper on Thursday showed only 47 percent of Likud members in favor of it.

The Sharon plan calls for the dismantling of all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank. Five large West Bank settlements, home to tens of thousands of Israelis, will be kept and expanded.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Wednesday resumed distributing food aid to 600,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The aid was suspended for three weeks after Israel imposed new security restrictions on the only commercial crossing point into the area following a Palestinian suicide attack.