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Israel Arrests Islamic Militants, Bans Arafat From Entering Bethlehem - 2001-12-27

Israeli soldiers have arrested eight Islamic militants during a raid into the West Bank town of Hebron. Israel will also bar Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from traveling to Bethlehem for Orthodox Christmas on January 6.

Israeli commandos raided a university dormitory in a Palestinian-controlled neighborhood of Hebron and arrested eight students there.

Israel said they are terrorist suspects and include members of the militant Islamic group Hamas.

Shots were fired during the raid but no injuries were reported.

Israel has intensified its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza after complaining that the Palestinian Authority is not doing enough to crack down on militant violence against Israelis.

Earlier in the week, Israel's government barred Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas Eve festivities in Bethlehem. The cabinet voted to ban his travel out of Ramallah unless he handed over suspects in the October murder of the Israeli Tourism Minister.

It was the first time in five years Mr. Arafat was not able to travel for the festivities.

Mr. Arafat called the decision a crime and a violation of religious freedom.

But Israel said the travel ban will hold for Orthodox Christmas too, which will be celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6.

Yasser Arafat has been a virtual prisoner in Ramallah for the past three weeks after Israel destroyed his helicopters and reinforced its military checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza.

Church leaders and foreign governments have sharply criticized Israel's decision as provocative.

Despite the increased tensions, Israel has agreed to ease travel restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel also said it will let the Palestinians rebuild the runway at its international airport in Gaza, which Israeli bulldozers tore up earlier in the month.

In domestic politics, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has been elected head of Israel's moderate Labor Party. Mr. Ben-Eliezer is serving as defense minister in the governing coalition with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's right wing Likud Party.