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Israeli Clampdown on West Bank Continues - 2002-12-27

The Israeli military continues its clampdown on Palestinian towns and cities across the West Bank. Israeli troops shot dead at least seven Palestinians in a series of clashes Thursday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and pushed back into Bethlehem to reimpose a curfew that had been lifted for the Christmas holidays.

Calm prevailed in the West Bank and Gaza on Friday, in sharp contrast to the violence a day earlier, when Israeli troops carried out a widespread hunt for Palestinian militants. Military sources described the raids as counter-terrorism operations.

On Thursday, shooting deaths were reported in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank towns of Nablus, Tulkarem, Ramallah and Qabatiya. Among the dead were a number of activists linked to Hamas and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. Some unarmed bystanders were also killed in the shooting, including a teenage boy in Nablus.

It was the highest single-day death toll among Palestinians since early December, when 10 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli raid on a Gaza refugee camp.

Also on Thursday, Israeli forces reoccupied Bethlehem's city center, firing tear gas to force people inside for a curfew, Israel say was imposed for security reasons. Israel had briefly lifted the curfew, and re-deployed its troops to the outskirts of town to allow for Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem.

Israeli troops reoccupied all major population centers in the West Bank, except for Jericho, last June, following a series of attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers inside Israel.

Thursday's Israeli military operations drew vows of revenge from Palestinian militant groups. The Palestinian leadership accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of escalating violence in a bid to win votes in next month's elections.