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Israeli Troops Continue Raiding Palestinian Villages - 2002-04-16

Israeli tanks and troops are continuing to raid Palestinian villages in the West Bank as part of a massive military operation to arrest militants and confiscate weapons.

Israeli soldiers, backed by armor, rolled into Abu Dis, Izzariyeh and Sawahra A-Sharkiyeh - all Palestinian villages near Jerusalem.

Troops declared a curfew, confining tens of thousands of residents to their homes.

The Israeli military also entered other Palestinian villages in the West Bank in a continuing sweep for wanted militants.

Israeli soldiers, supported by combat helicopters, briefly entered Tulkarem in an incursion the army says was aimed at making arrests.

Israeli forces left Tulkarem at the end of the operation and deployed to positions just outside the city.

The raids came after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President Bush that Israel would pull out of the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus within a week. However, the Israeli leader says the military will remain in Ramallah and Bethlehem.

Mr. Sharon is demanding the surrender of about 200 Palestinians hiding in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, built over the site where tradition says Jesus was born.

Israel says militants inside the church can choose between trial or deportation, an offer rejected by Palestinians in the basilica. U.S. officials say ending the standoff is a top priority.

Israeli intelligence officials have begun interrogating Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the current Palestinian uprising arrested Monday in Ramallah. He is the head of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank and has allegedly been behind scores of attacks against Israelis.

Mr. Barghouti is an outspoken supporter of using violence as a tool during the conflict, although he has not admitted to being directly responsible for planning attacks.

Meanwhile, Israel has re-opened the notorious desert detention camp of Ketziot to house some of the thousands of Palestinians arrested in recent weeks. Thousands of detainees were held in tents there during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, 1987-1993.

The camp, in the Negev Desert, exposes prisoners to biting cold and searing heat as well as rats, snakes and scorpions.