Sharon Presses on with Campaign Despite Bush Call for a Withdrawal

Despite U.S. objections, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is continuing Israel’s military operation in the West Bank.

President Bush called over the weekend for Israel to end its Operation Protective Wall, which was launched March 29 in an attempt to round up terrorists and collect illegal arms in Palestinian-controlled cities.

Sharon responded that he would do everything possible to end the operation as soon as possible, but on Sunday fighting continued to rage in several cities across the West Bank.

And as Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen clashed, Hezbollah gunmen in Lebanon launched weekend attacks that threatened to open up a second battlefront for Israel.

Sharon has widespread backing among Israelis for the operation. A recent Jerusalem Post poll found that 72 percent of Israelis support Israel’s decision to engage in a wide-scale military operation, and 36 percent favor the expulsion of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Fifteen percent of respondents said they believe the reoccupation of Palestinian cities should be permanent.

Israeli military officials have said it could take eight weeks before the operation achieves its objectives.

But some political observers believe that the operation will end, or at least be significantly reduced, by the time U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Israel on Friday.

Observers described the situation on the ground over the weekend as a race against the clock by Israel’s military to achieve as much as it could in its anti-terror campaign before Powell’s arrival.

On Sunday, the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told the Israeli Cabinet that some 70 wanted terrorists had been arrested since the launch of the campaign.

Mofaz also said 11 Israeli soldiers and some 200 Palestinians had been killed since the start of the military operation. He added that 143 Israeli soldiers and some 1,500 Palestinians had been wounded.

Bush announced in an April 4 speech that he was sending Powell to the Middle East. He made the announcement following widespread international criticism that the United States was not doing enough to end Israeli-Palestinian violence.

At a joint news conference Saturday from his Texas ranch with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush called on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities “without delay.” He also insisted that the Palestinian leadership order an immediate cease-fire and take steps against terrorist activity.

Bush reiterated his demand for an immediate Israeli withdrawal in a phone call Saturday night to Sharon.

Sharon promised to make “every effort” to end the operation as quickly as possible. But he said the army’s effort to weed out terrorists was taking extra time because of precautions being taken to avoid harming Palestinian civilians.

On Sunday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice clarified Bush’s position, saying that while the president wants Israel to withdraw without delay from Palestinian cities, he understands “that it can’t be helter-skelter and chaotic.” But, she said on CNN’s “Late Edition,” the president “does expect this withdrawal to begin.”

The question now is whether stepped-up American involvement in the conflict can have any effect on the two sides.

Four Israeli soldiers and some 30 Palestinians were killed in weekend clashes. An Israeli reservist, Staff Sgt. Nissan Avraham, 26 of Lod, was killed in a clash with terrorists near the Jewish settlement Rafiah Yam in the Gaza Strip on Saturday morning. Two Palestinian gunmen were killed.

And last Friday, three Israeli soldiers were killed during fighting in Jenin. They were identified as Sgt. Ro’i Tal, 20, of Ma’alot-Tarshiha; Cpl. Oded Kornfein, 20, of Kibbutz Ha’on; and Sgt. Marom Fisher, of Moshav Avigdor.

On Sunday, heavy fighting was reported in Jenin and Nablus. Palestinian officials said a leading member of the Tanzim militia was killed in Nablus. Also on Sunday, Israeli tanks and troops blocked roads and surrounded villages outside Ramallah.

In Bethlehem, Israeli troops urged Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity to come out.

The church has been surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks in a weeklong standoff aimed at capturing Palestinian gunmen who have taken refuge inside the basilica.

On Sunday, Israeli soldiers announced through speakers that the Palestinians would not be harmed if they came out.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials threatened to boycott meetings with Powell unless he meets with Arafat. The U.S. secretary of state said Sunday that he will meet with Arafat “if circumstances permit.”

In other developments, Israeli troops fired an anti-tank rocket Saturday toward Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. The army said the rocket was fired following repeated gunfire at Israeli troops from the building.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops on patrol Saturday night near the settlement of Morag spotted terrorists moving near the community’s green houses and opened fire on the infiltrators. On Sunday morning, the bodies of two terrorists were discovered during a search at the site of the previous night’s shooting. A wagon containing a powerful bomb was also found at the scene.

Israel launched Operation Protective Wall after a March 27 suicide bombing at a Passover seder in a Netanya hotel.

On Sunday, an Israeli died of injuries she sustained in the “Passover Massacre.” Sara Levy, 88, was a resident of Tel Aviv and a Holocaust survivor.

Her death raised to 27 the number of people killed in that attack.

The alleged mastermind of the bombing, Kayas Adwan, and five other Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli military operation in the West Bank village of Tubas over the weekend.

Adwan was also suspected of involvement in other suicide bombings, including the March 31 attack at a Haifa restaurant and another at the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem last August.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah gunmen launched a series of attacks on Israel’s northern border.

On Sunday, the Israeli military ordered civilians along the border with Lebanon to go into bomb shelters. The call came after Hezbollah launched several cross-border attacks in which six Israelis soldiers were injured.

In one Hezbollah attack, four soldiers were injured in the village of Avivim by cross-border gunfire, according to rescue workers.

In an earlier attack Sunday, two other soldiers were wounded when Hezbollah gunmen fired on Israeli positions in a disputed area on the Israel-Lebanon border known as Shabaa Farms.

Israel responded by firing artillery and rockets at Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah and the Lebanese government claim the area belongs to Lebanon, but the United Nations has rejected the claim, saying it was Syrian territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

On Saturday, five people were wounded, one seriously, in the village of Ghajar, which straddles the Lebanese border, during a heavy missile and mortar bombardment by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

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