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Israel Closes West Bank and Gaza Strip in Heightened Terror Alert - 2003-02-11

The Israeli army, citing a spate of warnings of planned terror attacks, has imposed a complete closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel said it sealed off the territories following intelligence reports that Palestinian groups had planned nearly 50 terrorist attacks.

Just hours before the closure was imposed late Monday, Israeli soldiers captured three would-be suicide bombers in the West Bank, one of them carrying a 20 kilogram bomb.

Acting on advice from the Shin Bet, Israel's secret police, the government has banned all Palestinians from entering the Jewish State.

The measure is expected to stay in force at least until the end of the week.

The decision effectively cancels plans to ease restrictions for Id al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, which begins Tuesday.

The closure will prevent Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from traveling to Jerusalem to pray at the compound in the Old City that houses the sacred Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques.

Under the order, entry to Israel from the territories will be allowed only in special humanitarian cases.

Full closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are usually imposed only for sacred Jewish and national holidays in Israel.

Israeli army officials defended the decision, saying that there is evidence that some groups, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, are plotting what the officials described as "mega terror attacks."

The military said such groups wanted to target sensitive or symbolic targets in Israel with the aim of causing large numbers of casualties and wounding national morale.

The army officials also suggested that the rise in planned attacks is an attempt by some Islamic groups to break off high-level contacts with the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government re-established contacts with the Palestinians last week for the first time in nearly a year.