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Israelis take over a Palestinian town

The raid is viewed as a further blow to Arafat’s standing

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TULKAREM, West Bank — For the first time in 16 months of fighting, Israeli troops took over an entire Palestinian town Monday, imposing a curfew, searching homes and arresting suspected militants in retaliation for attacks on Israeli civilians.

One Palestinian was killed and 15 were wounded in gun battles as troops took over Tulkarem.

In a separate clash in Ramallah, also on the West Bank, a Palestinian intelligence officer was killed and two other members of the security services were wounded.

The Tulkarem raid was the latest in a series of unprecedented reprisals for a deadly Palestinian shooting attack on an Israeli banquet hall last week. It was seen a further blow to the standing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been unable to leave his Ramallah compound because of Israeli armored vehicles parked outside.

Arafat warned Monday that Israel has "crossed all red lines" by taking over Tulkarem.

Israeli officials said the aim of the raid was to round up militants and prevent future attacks on Israelis. Palestinian officials accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to topple Arafat.

At about 3 a.m. Monday, dozens of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers, backed by helicopter gunships, rolled into the town.

Palestinian gunmen shot at Israeli troops, drawing return fire. The heaviest fighting came in the adjacent Tulkarem refugee camp, where many gunmen fled after Israeli troops took over the town. Doctors said one civilian was killed and a second critically wounded. Fourteen more people were wounded by gunfire.

The governor of Tulkarem, Izzedine Sharif, urged residents over mosque loudspeakers to defy the curfew and resist Israeli troops.

Troops took over eight buildings, including a local college and the villa of the mayor, sandbagging rooftops and hoisting Israeli flags there.

Soldiers also commandeered a police operations room and detained two Palestinian policemen, witnesses said. The main government compound in Tulkarem, which also contained the police headquarters, was razed last week in an Israeli air strike in response to the banquet hall attack.

Soldiers went from house to house looking for suspected militants, including members of the Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, Sharif said. Israeli reports said more than 20 suspects were detained.

A defiant Arafat, who called a truce with Israel last month, said the Palestinians would resist. "Our people will never keep silence about all of these Israeli attacks," he told visitors at his Ramallah headquarters.

The 72-year-old Palestinian leader also acknowledged that he might not be around long enough to witness the creation of a Palestinian state. "I swear to God I will see the Palestinian state, as a martyr or while still alive," he said.

Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a long battle, Arafat said, and the Israeli tanks outside his office will not change that.

"I say to these tanks, the Israeli tanks outside, this is not the first time, and it's not going to be the last time they besiege us. They should remember what happened in Beirut," Arafat said, referring to Israel's 1982 siege that ended with his expulsion from the Lebanese capital. Arafat rebounded and returned to the Palestinian territories as their leader in 1994.

Col. Yair Golan, an Israeli brigade commander, said troops would not stay long in Tulkarem and that the situation would be evaluated every day.

Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said the aim was to round up militants and prevent more attacks on Israelis. He suggested that other towns could be targeted as well. "Mainly in the northern West Bank, there is a very profound infrastructure of terrorist attacks from all organizations, which is likely to blow up among us at any time in the most deadly fashion," Sneh told Israel Army Radio.

Since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, Israeli troops have repeatedly entered Palestinian-ruled towns and cities, but Monday's raid was the largest and marked the first time Israel took over an entire town.

The incursion came in retaliation for an attack by a Palestinian militant on a banquet hall in the Israeli town of Hadera last week. The assailant killed six Israelis before being shot dead by Israeli police.

In previous reprisals for the Hadera attack, Israel destroyed the five-story Palestinian broadcasting center in Ramallah and razed the Tulkarem government center.

The Hadera gunmen and many previous assailants set out from Tulkarem, the Israeli military said in a statement. The Hadera gunman was a former Palestinian policeman and a member of the Al Aqsa Brigades.

Israel's Cabinet has not formally decided to try to topple Arafat, and government officials have said the latest actions were intended to pressure him to crack down on militants. However, Sharon has referred to Arafat, his old nemesis, as a bitter enemy and an unrepentant terrorist.

Former President Bill Clinton, in Israel to speak at a fund-raising dinner and receive an honorary degree at Tel Aviv University, spoke candidly about a failed peace pact he had pushed and placed the onus primarily on the Palestinian side.

"I believe Chairman Arafat missed a golden opportunity to make that agreement. I think the violence and terrorism which followed were not inevitable, and have been a terrible mistake," he said Sunday.

On Monday, Clinton said he was baffled when the Palestinian delegation rejected the pact in the last days of his term.

"That's the honest truth. I thought they were going to sign," he said.