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Israeli troops hunt for 7 fugitives

Israeli troops cut off roads in the militant stronghold of Nablus and confined tens of thousands of people to their homes Monday for a house-to-house search for seven fugitives.
An Israeli soldier gestures towards the camera in Nablus
An Israeli soldier attempts to block a photographer's view Monday during an Israeli military operation in the West Bank city of Nablus. Eliana Aponte / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli troops cut off roads in the militant stronghold of Nablus and confined tens of thousands of people to their homes Monday for a house-to-house search for seven fugitives.

One Palestinian was killed in Israel’s largest military operation in the West Bank in months, winding up its second day.

Israelis said the goal was to pre-empt Palestinian terrorist attacks, but Palestinians said Israel was undermining efforts to implement a power sharing deal between rivals Fatah and Hamas.

Israeli troops sealed off the center of Nablus’ old city with cement blocks and trash containers Monday. About 80 jeeps, armored vehicles and bulldozers moved around the densely populated militant stronghold.

Soldiers uncovered three explosives labs, the military said, and enforced a curfew that confined tens of thousands of Palestinians to their homes.

Anan al-Teibi was shot and killed Monday at his home in the old city, medics said. A neighbor, Nashaat Hijawi, said the 42-year-old was hit by fire from a passing Israeli army jeep. The army said it fired at “suspicious figures” on the rooftop of a building where gunmen were operating, killing one man and wounding another.

House by house
Raiding soldiers moved from house to house, searching every room for the seven men it was pursuing, residents said.

Mohammed Attireh, 47, said all the occupants of his building in Nablus’ old city were ordered to stay in his apartment while troops searched the others. Soldiers then took the group of more than 20 people to another apartment so they could search his. Troops took over two houses on his street as temporary positions, and almost every house in the neighborhood was searched, Attireh said.

The Israeli commander in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Yair Golan, said the military entered Nablus because of increased militant activity in the city, which he called the source of most intercepted suicide bombers and explosives. “We entered the city to lower the threat level to Israel and hit terror infrastructure,” he said.

Physicians for Human Rights, a watchdog group, complained that soldiers were checking ambulances at the entrances to hospitals, and the curfew was preventing residents from receiving medical treatment. The military had no immediate comment.

Palestinian security officials said 30 people have been detailed since the raid began Sunday, but the seven militant leaders were not among them. The sweep was Israel’s largest in the West Bank since last July.

Names on the air
In a new tactic, troops broke into transmissions of local TV and radio stations Sunday and broadcast the names of the seven wanted men. Soldiers warned civilians against hiding the fugitives, apparently all members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement.

Two Al Aqsa gunmen, brothers Ahmed and Alaa Sanakra, said all fugitives had gone into hiding.

Dozens of Al Aqsa gunmen operate in Nablus, organized in small groups without a central authority. Residents have complained that some of the gunmen are terrorizing the city by settling personal scores in shooting attacks, acting as self-appointed vice squads or engaging in blackmail.

The raid came at a sensitive time for Abbas, who is trying to put together a unity government with the Islamic militant Hamas group while seeking to renew peace efforts with Israel.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the offensive would “undermine the efforts that are being made to sustain the cease-fire with Israel.”

Hamas leader in Moscow
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas condemned “the criminal Israeli assault on Nablus,” saying it was designed to undermine Palestinian efforts to form a coalition government.

The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, arrived in Moscow on Monday, where he called on Russia to help end the world’s crippling aid boycott of the Palestinian government.

A power sharing deal, designed to end factional fighting between Hamas and the Fatah, was announced earlier this month in Saudi Arabia.

“The international community has to respect our stance and not burden us with conditions,” Mashaal said, in comments broadcast by the pan Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera TV.

Also Monday, police said a settler found dead in the West Bank was killed by Palestinian militants. Israeli media reported two Palestinians confessed to the killing. The settler, Erez Lebanon, lived in Bat Ayin, a settlement near Hebron known to house eccentrics and Jewish extremists.