JERUSALEM, Oct. 21 (JTA) — Israel has launched its biggest operation in areas under Palestinian control since the two sides signed their first interim peace accords in 1993.
Palestinian officials charged Sunday that Israel is seeking to topple the Palestinian Authority — but Israel denied the accusation.
In an offensive that began after the Oct. 17 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, the Israel Defense Force took up positions over the weekend in and around six of the largest Palestinian-controlled cities in the West Bank — in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Kalkilya.
“It is the most widescale ground operation undertaken to date against the Palestinian Authority,” the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, was quoted as telling the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday.
At least 11 Palestinians were killed in fierce weekend battles across the West Bank.
Israeli officials said they launched the incursions to nab Palestinian terrorists planning attacks on Israelis.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the ground offensive would end after he was satisfied that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had begun cracking down against terrorists.
At the same time, he said Sunday that Israel has “no interest in remaining in places where the army has entered.”
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres gave a similar assurance when he met Sunday in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to a spokesman for the Israeli mission to the United Nations.
“We do not want to overthrow the Palestinian Authority,” Peres was quoted as saying.
The Israeli operation has drawn international criticism and sparked disagreements within Sharon’s coalition government.
U.S. officials criticized the Israeli thrust into Palestinian cities in the West Bank, but they stopped short of calling for an Israeli withdrawal.
“Israeli entries into Palestinian-controlled areas are not helpful, complicate the situation and should be halted,” the U.S. State Department said.
The United States has been urging the two sides to reach a cease-fire to prevent Arab states from abandoning the U.S.-led international campaign against terrorism.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday he called leaders from both sides in an effort to end the fighting.
The same day, Pope John Paul urged Israel and the Palestinians to end the fighting in Bethlehem, site of some of the heaviest exchanges of fire during the Israeli thrust.
At least three Palestinians were killed Sunday in Bethlehem. One of them was killed near the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’ birth according to Christian tradition.
“War and death arrived even on the square of the Basilica of the Nativity,” the pope said in what was one his most dramatic calls for peace in the Middle East. “Violence is for everybody only a path of death and destruction which dishonors the holiness of God and the dignity of man.”
Israel moved into Bethlehem and the nearby towns of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahur last Friday in an attempt to stop Palestinian fire on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
Palestinian gunmen continued firing on Gilo throughout the weekend, but no injuries were reported.
The fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen erupted Oct. 18 after senior Palestinian militant Atef Abayat — who was sought by Israel for numerous shooting attacks including one last month that killed an Israeli woman — died along with two other Palestinians when their car exploded.
Palestinian officials blamed Israel for the explosion but Israel denied responsibility, saying the men were preparing a car bomb to use against Israel that went off prematurely.
Israeli officials said it was “astonishing” that Abayat was preparing a bomb, considering that the Palestinian Authority recently claimed that it had arrested him.
Within hours after Ze’evi was assassinated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — a radical group that is part of the PLO — Israel presented the Palestinian Authority with an ultimatum.
“There can be no compromise with terror. It must be eradicated, without distinction between its perpetrators and those who harbor them,” the statement said.
“Failure to meet these demands,” the statement added, “will leave us with no choice but to view the Palestinian Authority as an entity supporting and sponsoring terror, and to act accordingly.”