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Israeli Troops Arrest Dozens of Terrorist Suspects; Confiscate Weapons

Israeli troops have continued their sweep of Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza in the largest ground operation since the start of the Palestinian uprising 15 months ago. Dozens of terrorist suspects were arrested, and weapons confiscated. Israeli tanks and troops remain in position in many locations.

Security was especially tight at midday in East Jerusalem as Muslims flocked to the al Aqsa mosque for prayers on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan.

At the same time, Israeli forces have targeted Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza with combat aircraft and helicopter gunships, tanks and troops on the ground.

Dozens of terrorist suspects have been arrested in the sweep. Israeli commander Yitzhak Eitan says there was an exchange of gunfire in the village of Salfit when gunmen tried to stop the Israelis. "During the raids, the [Israeli Defense Forces] arrested Palestinians suspected of terrorist activity, and, during this operation, fire was opened against our forces," he said. "There were killed five Palestinians involved in terrorist activities."

Palestinians say one of those killed was on Israel's list of wanted terrorists.

The military incursions came after Israel's government declared Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat irrelevant and cut off contacts with him. The government had complained that Mr. Arafat was not doing enough to curb extremist attacks against Israelis.

The Israeli decision to cut off contacts with Mr. Arafat has sparked criticism in Washington and Europe, where Yasser Arafat is still considered the legitimate leader of the Palestinians and a viable peace partner for Israel.

The Palestinian Authority has complained that Israeli air strikes on security compounds are making its crackdown on terrorism more difficult. Palestinian Authority officials also denounce the destruction of infrastructure, including houses, police stations and broadcast facilities.

Tanks now sit within firing range of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Israeli soldiers occupy the home of the chief of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement there, too.

Hundreds of Ramallah residents have marched in the streets to protest Israel's military presence.

Israeli air strikes in Gaza have targeted security compounds. Israeli soldiers also set up roadblocks outside Jewish settlements.

Tanks have demolished Palestinian houses near Khan Younis that Israel says militants were using for cover, while attacking a Jewish settlement. But by nightfall on Friday, Israel's military was reporting more Palestinian mortar attacks on settlements in Gaza.