Israeli soldiers blew open doors with grenades, rummaged through closets and rounded up residents while searching for fugitives and bomb labs in Nablus’ old city — the largest army operation in the militant stronghold in more than a year.
Soldiers sealed the old city with cement blocks and barbed wire to lock in militants and imposed a strict curfew. The military said “Operation Full Court Press” would last several days.
Soldiers handed out leaflets explaining that they are looking for seven men, most from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
Earlier in the week, an 18-year-old from Nablus, recruited by Al Aqsa to blow himself up in Jerusalem, was caught at an Israeli checkpoint, and soldiers later found his explosives hidden in a school bag. The army said the raid was triggered, in part, by that arrest.
The Nablus leader of Al Aqsa, Nayef Abu Sharikh, was among those on the wanted list. His mother, Dahieh, said soldiers burst into her home looking for her son.
“They were shouting, cursing,” she said. “They damaged closets, threw all the things inside on the floor.”
Also Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia condemned the U.S. House of Representatives for overwhelmingly affirming President Bush’s declaration in April that Israel cannot be expected to withdraw from the entire West Bank.
Late Thursday night, the U.S. Senate gave solid endorsement to a measure by a 95-3 vote.
“Endorsement of Israeli settlements (in the West Bank) would reverse 30 years of U.S. foreign policy,” Qureia said in a statement, adding that the resolution contradicts the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the U.S. House vote was one of the biggest diplomatic achievements in Israel’s history.
“This is a great day in the history of Israel,” Sharon said at the headquarters of his Likud Party.
Israeli army commanders, meanwhile, presented their initial plans for security arrangements after a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Remote-controlled vehicles would patrol much of the border fence, according to the plan given to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, security officials said. The plans are to be completed by August.
The World Bank warned in a new report that Israel could lose diplomatic gains from the withdrawal plan if Gaza laborers are denied access to work in Israel or water and electricity supplies to the teeming coastal strip are cut. Israel has not said it will impose either of these measures.
In the Gaza Strip, two armed Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire early Thursday as they approached an army outpost in what militants said was a failed attack on the nearby settlement of Dugit.
The Nablus operation began late Wednesday, with jeeps and bulldozers driving into the old city, or Casbah, and imposing a curfew. Soldiers sealed streets to prevent fugitives from getting away.
Nareman Khader, 76, said she and her family were awakened by loud explosions as soldiers burst into the apartment building.
“They made all the residents of the building wait in the first-floor apartment, about 25 people in all. They searched everything and after about two hours, they left after checking the men’s ID cards,” she said.
Troops briefly exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen. Two Palestinians were wounded. During searches, troops found a belt with 44 pounds of explosives, the army said.
Soldiers blew up the belt, damaging the house where it was found, the army said. Troops also found a roadside bomb at a junction and detonated it.
Nablus Governor Mahmoud Aloul said troops were shooting, blowing up doors and rounding up residents and taking them for questioning to two makeshift command centers.
“Apparently it is a long operation,” he said.
Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman, said the main target were Al Aqsa militants. In recent weeks, troops have rounded up several Nablus teens who told interrogators they were recruited as suicide bombers by militants in the Casbah.
Palestinian officials said no major fugitives were captured Thursday.
Many Palestinian suicide bombers have come from Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city. Fighting between troops and militants in Nablus has been especially fierce during nearly four years of violence.
Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza — lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — and demand the removal of all settlements.
The Palestinian prime minister said the legislative vote raised questions about the United States’ ability to act as an honest broker in the conflict.
American, U.N., European and Russian peace envoys meeting at an Egyptian resort Thursday promised to continue pressing for the internationally backed peace plan.
“We are going to do everything we can to help” the Palestinians and Israelis move ahead with the peace plan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said.
The envoys also expressed “strong support” for Egypt’s offer to deploy security advisers in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s withdrawal, saying it would be “critical” for a successful pullout.