Israel on Wednesday clamped down on this West Bank city for the second time in a week, confining tens of thousands of people to their homes as troops moved house to house in search of wanted militants.
In nearby Jenin, undercover troops in a black car shot and killed three militants in a parking lot, including the chief spokesman for the Islamic Jihad group, Palestinian officials said.
The army has been operating in Nablus, the West Bank’s commercial center, since the weekend. Forces briefly withdrew Tuesday, but at dawn, dozens of jeeps backed by bulldozers moved back in.
In Jenin, Israeli undercover troops in a black car fired at a vehicle carrying three Islamic Jihad gunmen, witnesses said. The army confirmed its troops killed the men, saying they had helped to plan an attempted suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that was thwarted last week.
Two of the militants were killed instantly, and the third, Ashraf Saadi, was shot and killed after he scrambled out of the car and tried to escape, witnesses said. Saadi was the spokesman for Islamic Jihad, a militant group backed by Iran and Syria, and responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel.
The army said the troops tried to arrest Saadi but he opened fire on them. Troops returned fire, killing two militants and injuring Saadi. After Saadi fled, continuing to fire, the troops shot him dead, the army said. One soldier was slightly wounded by gunfire.
In the Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Ahmad vowed retaliation. Hamas also swore revenge.
Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank, with 160,000 residents, is known as a hotbed of Palestinian militant activity. The Israeli army says most of the suicide bombers involved in last year’s attacks came from the area. The army’s operation in Nablus is the largest in the West Bank since July.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces blocked all entrances to Nablus’ crowded Old City — the focus of the raid — as they pursued wanted men. Residents said more than 100 jeeps patrolled city streets, enforcing a curfew that confined about 50,000 Old City residents to their homes.
As troops moved house to house, the army broadcast messages on Palestinian TV and radio stations urging wanted men to surrender.
The army said it has arrested five people and uncovered three explosives labs. One Palestinian civilian has been killed since the Nablus operation began.
The wanted militants remained in hiding, but Palestinian officials said 10 people were wounded as troops clashed with youths throwing stones. Fifty people were detained, although many were released, the officials said, and troops surrounded hospitals to check people going in and out.
‘Our patients are suffering’
“We can’t continue to operate like this. Our patients are suffering because the tear gas is coming into the hospital,” said Adnan Kuzeih, manager at Itihad Hospital.
The army said one soldier was seriously wounded by a bomb.
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas accused Israel of trying to undermine Palestinian efforts to form a unity government. Hamas and the rival Fatah movement are trying to finalize a power-sharing deal reached in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, designed to halt months of infighting.
“It’s clear that this Israeli escalation ... is tied directly to Israel’s rejection of the Mecca agreement, which strengthened national unity,” Haniyeh said.
The international community has been reticent about recognizing the new government. The platform falls short of international demands that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate from Fatah, has been trying to coax the West into accepting the deal, saying it is the best he can get from the violently anti-Israel Hamas.
Divisions between E.U., U.S.
Visiting European officials said that divisions are beginning to emerge between the European Union and the United States.
The EU external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, held talks with Palestinian officials. “Nobody yet has a clue what the program of the government will look like,” she said.
EU diplomats acknowledged the Europeans might be willing to engage “with some elements” of the coalition government, adding such a selective approach may not be shared by the U.S.
During a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington expects the new government to accept the international principles on dealing with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he will not deal with the new government if it doesn’t accept the international conditions, although he would still be willing to talk to Abbas.