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Sharon: Heavy Casualties Will Not Quash Israel’s Anti-terror Campaign

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Despite U.S. pressure and heavy losses, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is vowing to press ahead with Israel’s ongoing military operation in the West Bank.

For days, President Bush and other U.S. officials have been calling for an end to the operation.

Sharon gave a mixed response to the U.S. pressure early Tuesday morning, when he had the Israel Defense Force withdraw from two West Bank cities, Tulkarm and Kalkilya, but at the same time ordered his troops into the town of Dura, near Hebron.

Israeli and American observers had speculated that he would order a full-scale withdrawal before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Israel by the end of the week.

But a deadly suicide bombing Tuesday in Jenin — the West Bank city that has witnessed the fiercest fighting since Israel launched Operation Protective Wall on March 29 — may only harden Sharon’s resolve to press on with the fight.

Speaking after he had received word that 13 Israeli reservists had been killed in a Palestinian ambush in Jenin’s crowded refugee camp, Sharon sounded a defiant tone.

“It was a difficult day,” Sharon said. “This battle is a battle for survival of the Jewish people, for survival of the State of Israel.

“We will continue the operation until the terrorist infrastructure is destroyed,” Sharon said. “Then we can begin to address the political process.”

The names of 12 of the 13 killed were released later Tuesday: Sgt. Maj. Tiran Arazi, 33, from Hadera; Lt. Yoel Ayal, 28, from Beersheba; Capt. Ya’akov Azulai, 30, from Migdal Ha’Emek; Lt. Dror Bar, 28, from Kibbutz Einat; Sgt. Maj. Yoram Levy, 33, from Elad; Sgt. Maj. Avner Yaskov, 34, from Beersheba; Sgt. Maj. Menashe Hava, 23, from Kfar Saba; Maj. Oded Golomb, 32, from Beit Yehoshua; Sgt. Maj. Ronen Alshochat, 27, from Ramle; Sgt. Maj. Shmuel Danny Meizlish, 27, from Moshav Hemed; Sgt. Maj. Amit Poseidon, 22, from Bat Yam; and Sgt. Maj. Eyal Zimmerman, 22, from Ra’anana.

Clashes continued in Jenin on Tuesday evening, when at least another eight soldiers were wounded.

In other violence that day, an Israeli army officer, Maj. Asaf Asulin, was killed in the West Bank town of Nablus. The IDF said it was investigating the possibility that he was killed by friendly fire.

The ambush in Jenin occurred when an IDF unit had entered an enclosed courtyard as part of their house-to-house search for terrorists and weapons.

When most of the troops were inside, a suicide bomber blew himself up, and Palestinians stationed on the surrounding rooftops opened fire and threw explosives at the soldiers. Surrounding walls collapsed on the troops, burying them. Eight soldiers were killed.

A second group of soldiers responding to the explosions also came under fire. Five other soldiers were killed and nine were wounded.

Since the start of Operation Protective Wall, 22 soldiers have been killed there in Jenin. The refugee camp is a stronghold for Islamic terrorists, and dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers have been dispatched from there.

Israeli security officials said this week that the armed Palestinians in Jenin appeared intent on fighting to the death.

At a news conference Tuesday, the head of the Israeli army’s central command, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, attributed the fierce fighting to the fact that the refugee camp hosts the “infrastructure for the suicide bombers of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah.

“Unfortunately, these same bombers have no consideration for their own civilian populations, and use them as human cover to fight us. This group of suicide bombers has refused and refuses now to all our appeals to surrender.”

Israeli officials expressed concern Tuesday that images from the refugee camp showing Israeli tanks tearing down walls to get through narrow alleyways, along with reports of dead bodies strewn in the streets, will draw international condemnation.

The officials made a point of stating that the IDF was fighting armed Palestinians, not carrying out massacres of innocent civilians.

The officials also said the army had given assurances that it would not fire on rescue workers coming to clear the dead and wounded, but that Palestinian ambulances nonetheless would not remove the casualties.

Meanwhile, attempts were continuing on the diplomatic front.

Powell said he would meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat later this week as part of efforts to reach a cease-fire.

Powell made the announcement Tuesday in Cairo, the second stop — he was in Morocco a day earlier — in his Middle East peacemaking mission.

Powell told reporters that the United States welcomed Israel’s withdrawal from Tulkarm and Kalkilya and voiced the hope that these steps are “the beginning of the end” of the Israeli military operation in the West Bank.

At the same time, Powell said U.S. officials “know it is difficult to disengage that quickly when people are locked” in combat.

He used stronger language a day earlier, when he said after meeting with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI that he was demanding “a clear statement from Israel that they are beginning to withdraw” from Palestinian territories and “to do it now.”

Also on Monday, Sharon made an address before a special session of the Knesset in which he said that once Israel’s objectives are reached, troops will pull back to defined buffer zones.

Sharon also said he was prepared to hold a summit with “moderate” Arab leaders to talk peace.

In the speech, Sharon accused Arafat of leading a “terrorist regime” and urged Palestinians to put forward a responsible leadership.

Palestinian officials said Sharon’s speech was undermining Powell’s peace mission.

Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat told CNN that the Israeli invasion of Palestinian cities and Sharon’s reference to buffer zones signaled the end of the peace process and the Palestinian Authority.

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.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah gunmen have launched a series of attacks on Israel’s northern border, a move that threatened to open a second battlefront for Israel.

On Tuesday, Hezbollah carried out cross-border attacks for a seventh straight day.

A day earlier, Israel called up additional reserve units to serve near the border with Lebanon.

The United States promised Israel it would warn Syria, the leading power broker in Lebanon, against an escalation along Israel’s northern border. For now at least, Israel has decided to continue maintaining a restrained response to the cross-border attacks in order to give diplomatic efforts a chance.

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