Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to his cabinet that Israeli troops will eventually be withdrawn from Palestinian-ruled areas. Meanwhile, the escalating confrontation claimed at least two more Palestinians lives Sunday, bringing the total to more than 20 in the last five days. Mr. Sharon's promise came in the wake of the Israeli military blockade of six West Bank cities.
The action was launched following last week's assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister. It is the most extensive ground operation against the Palestinian Authority since the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
Mr. Sharon told his cabinet ministers that the six Palestinian-ruled towns in the West Bank have been encircled in order to thwart more terror attacks. He said that Israeli troops are also attempting to capture members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the group that said it murdered Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze'evi in a Jerusalem hotel.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is calling for international intervention to force Israel to halt the military offensive immediately and provide protection for his people.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, counters that such actions would not have been necessary, if Mr. Arafat had halted terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants.
But the government's decision to step up its military offensive is causing a rift in the cabinet among fellow members of Mr. Ben-Eliezer's left-leaning Labor Party. Among them are Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik, who predicted Sunday that the Labor faction would not remain in Mr. Sharon's ruling coalition for more than another three months.
Haim Ramon, also from Labor, echoed similar sentiments. He says the Labor Party cannot remain in a government that continues what he describes as a policy of "re-conquering" territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mr. Ramon says if a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians is not possible, then Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the territories.