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Israel: More Incursions Possible into Palestinian Territories - 2002-05-30

The Israeli military has withdrawn from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, after searching for militants allegedly responsible for carrying out suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis.

Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers, and troops pulled out of Bethlehem and other forces withdrew from the adjacent Dheisheh refugee camp.

Israeli soldiers raided the town and surrounding villages earlier this week, imposing a curfew that confined tens of thousands of Palestinians to their homes.

The army says among those militants arrested during the incursion was a man responsible for planning a suicide bombing last week that killed two Israelis in a suburb of Tel Aviv.

During the raid Israeli soldiers blocked access to the Church of the Nativity, built over the site where tradition says Jesus was born, to prevent another standoff at the shrine with Palestinian gunmen.

Last month some militants took refuge inside the basilica during a previous Israeli incursion, and remained there for more than five weeks until a deal was reached to send them into exile in Europe or the Gaza Strip.

Earlier, Israeli forces arrested at least ten Palestinians during brief raids into Hebron, Jenin and a village near Tulkarm in the West Bank.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel says the incursions will continue until Palestinian attacks are stopped. "While attempts are being made to resume the peace process we also have, of course, to continue and fight terror," he emphasized. "There can be no immunity for terrorists. They can not expect to come and kill Israelis and then go and hide anywhere within the territory of the Palestinian Authority."

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns is in the Middle East as part of a fresh diplomatic effort to end 20 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Mr. Burns met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah and is scheduled to hold talks on Friday with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Burns says he is in the region to renew a serious political process and support Palestinian efforts to build strong institutions in preparation for statehood.

The U.S. diplomat says "there has been too much suffering and too much death for both Palestinians and Israelis." Mr. Burns stressed, "It is time to restore a sense of hope."

The director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, is due to travel to the Middle East on Friday and is expected to focus on helping the Palestinian Authority reform its security services.