Israel kills activist, arrests 17 in West Bank

news41.jpgOCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli army killed a Palestinian and arrested 17 fighters Monday in raids across the West Bank, despite a decision by the military to scale back such operations in order to bolster a shaky truce with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Although the ceasefire agreement does not cover the West Bank, fighters in Gaza have repeatedly threatened to break the truce and launch a wave of reprisal attacks because of Israeli military operations there.

“I wouldn’t rule out ending the ceasefire in a few short days if the enemy continues like this,” Hamas spokesman Abu Obeideh said.

After nightfall Monday, Israeli troops opened fire at two men in the West Bank town of Tulkarem as they were trying to flee, killing one, the military said. The other, who was the target of the arrest raid, was wounded and captured.

Palestinian security officials said the soldiers opened fire at a restaurant, killing a civilian and wounding two others — the activist and a teenager.

Israel and the Palestinians agreed to the truce just over a week ago, ending five months of widespread fighting in Gaza and leading to hopes that it was only the first step in a new round of peace efforts between the two sides.

Since the truce took effect, Gaza fighters have launched 16 homemade Qassam rockets into Israel, the army said, causing no casualties and little damage — 11 in the first hours of the truce. One was fired Monday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee on Monday that the government would react with restraint to the continuing attacks, adding that the rocket fire didn’t cease during Israel’s military operations in Gaza, either.

“It was clear that there would not be an absolute halt to hostilities, but we must remember that until now we haven’t found an alternative formula to stop the rocket fire and weapons smuggling,” he said, referring to the fighters’ efforts to bring in weapons from Egypt.

“We will fully explore every possibility that can lead to momentum to begin a diplomatic process, and so we are now giving the truce a chance,” he said, according to participants in the meeting.

In an effort to bolster the ceasefire, senior military officials said Monday they had decided to reduce their West Bank operations, allowing only regional or division commanders to order arrest raids, instead of the lower-ranking brigade commanders. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

The army was ordered to take precautions so that “uncalled for incidents don’t develop in Judea and Samaria,” said senior Labour Party legislator Danny Yatom, a member of the parliamentary committee, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

“But there is absolutely no Israeli commitment not to take military action against terror threats” there, he added.

Early Monday morning, after the army decision, troops arrested 15 fighters in raids across the West Bank, the army said. Later Monday, another fighter, wanted since 2001, was arrested in Bethlehem, the army said.

Palestinian officials called for an end to the raids.

“We urge [Israel] to stop arrests, incursions, and to give the ceasefire the chance it deserves,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Israeli officials expressed concern that fighters in Gaza were using the truce to rearm with weapons smuggled through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. And several analysts predicted that Israel might have to launch an all-out offensive in Gaza to try to crush the fighters.

“We must not delude ourselves. We have to examine whether the quiet is just on the surface, at a time when certain elements are rearming. If so, we simply must not accept it,” said lawmaker Israel Hasson of the hardline Yisrael Beitenu, a member of Olmert’s ruling coalition.

Meanwhile, members of the Hamas-led Palestinian government said that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had managed to collect tens of millions of dollars during his current trip abroad, which could help the government weather crippling international sanctions against it. Western nations have refused to give the government money unless Hamas renounces violence and recognises Israel, which it refuses to do. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, of Hamas, said Haniyeh received a pledge from Qatar to pay the salaries of teachers in Gaza, which comes to about $29.5 million.

It was unclear how the money would be brought to Gaza. In recent weeks, some Palestinian officials have hand-carried large amounts of cash in their luggage when they cross into Gaza from Egypt.

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