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Israeli tanks, Palestinians trade heavy fire in Hebron

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HEBRON, West Bank — Israeli tanks rolled into the Palestinian sector of Hebron early Monday and exchanged heavy fire with Palestinian gunmen in the deepest incursion since Israel withdrew from most of the city in 1997.

The Israeli raid was triggered by Palestinian shooting attacks at Israeli army posts and a Jewish settlement near Hebron late Sunday. In the incursion, Israeli tanks wounded nine Palestinians, destroyed four Palestinian police posts in Hebron and one in a nearby village.

Later Monday, an Israeli tank and four military vehicles entered Palestinian territory on the outskirts of the West Bank town of Tulkarem and fired three shells at a deserted Palestinian checkpoint, the witnesses said.

The latest exchanges made it increasingly unlikely that a U.S.-backed truce, declared a month ago, will take hold. Fighting has been escalating in recent days.

The flare-up came despite an upbeat assessment by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres after a meeting in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, that the cease-fire could be made to stick.

"I'm leaving Cairo with the sense that there is hope," Peres said after talking with Arafat for more than an hour.

The events in and around Hebron began late Sunday night when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli army posts and the Jewish settlement of Beit Haggai from six different locations, Palestinian witnesses said.

The Israeli army said Israeli commanders repeatedly asked the Palestinians to cease fire, and only then launched the raid.

Israeli tanks rumbled into Palestinian-controlled areas of Hebron from three directions. Tanks destroyed four checkpoints manned by Force 17, a security service with special ties to Arafat. A fifth checkpoint was razed in the village of Dura, south of Hebron.

During the Israeli incursion, Palestinians returned heavy fire, and the fighting lasted until about 4 a.m., when the Israelis withdrew. Israeli forces fired several tank shells, as well as tank-mounted machine guns.

Nine Palestinians were wounded in the fighting.

"What happened last night was a very dangerous escalation of violence by the Israeli government," said Col. Awni Natsche, deputy commander of the Palestinian police in Hebron. "It was all against our civilian people and this leads us to the conclusion that Israel believes only in force."

Under previous peace accords, Israel withdrew from most of Hebron in January 1997, but retained control over the downtown area where 450 Jewish settlers live in several heavily fortified enclaves. Hebron is a flashpoint of violence, with frequent friction between settlers and Palestinian residents.

In the past 10 months, Palestinian gunmen have persistently targeted the settlers' compounds. The settlers, in turn, have demanded that Israel retake Palestinian-controlled areas in the city.

Last week, Israeli tanks moved briefly into the Palestinian part of Hebron after two Jewish settlers were killed in shooting ambushes near the city.