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Israeli troops raze 62 Palestinian shops

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NABLUS, West Bank — In the biggest demolition in the West Bank in years, Israel razed 62 shops and market stalls in a Palestinian village Tuesday as troops clashed with protesters, residents said.

Israel says the shops were built illegally. The mayor of the village accused Israel of waging war on the Palestinian economy.

Seven bulldozers, guarded by some 300 troops, began tearing down shops in the village of Nazlat Issa early Tuesday. By midmorning, 62 shops were demolished, the mayor said.

Dozens of protesters threw stones at troops who fired tear gas and rubber-coated steel pellets. Other demonstrators chanted "Down with the occupation."

The village is on the edge of the West Bank, close to Israel. The 170-shop market in Nazlat Issa drew many Israeli customers before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000. The market is a main source of income for the village's 2,500 residents, said the mayor, Ziad Salem, adding that Israel officials informed the shop owners that the entire market would be demolished.

In another development, Israel's Supreme Court backtracked from a ban against soldiers using Palestinians to aid their military operations. An earlier ruling banned the practice of soldiers ordering Palestinians to knock on the doors of suspected militants, endangering their lives if gunfire erupted. The court said Tuesday that Palestinians must not be forced to help soldiers, but they may be used if they volunteer their services.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken a hard line against a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian officials claim he is escalating his activities to garner right-wing support in the days ahead of a Jan. 28 general election.

Israeli troops have demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes, many in the Gaza Strip, in the past 28 months of fighting. In Gaza alone, more than 5,700 Palestinians have been made homeless, according to Palestinian officials. Many of the buildings were razed in military offensives, with Israel saying the structures provided cover for Palestinian gunmen.

Since July, Israel has also demolished dozens of homes of Palestinians involved in bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis.

Human rights groups say the demolitions constitute collective punishment, while Israel says they are an important deterrent.

In Nazlat Issa, demolition orders were distributed earlier this month, and shop owners were told they had 15 days to file court appeals. The mayor said the market has been operating for more than 10 years, and this was the first time merchants received demolition orders.

"The Israelis are waging a war on the economic front as well," Salem said.

Talia Somech, a spokeswoman for Israel's military government in the West Bank, said it took 10 years to take down the shops because a series of court and committee hearings precede the demolition of illegal structures in the West Bank. She said the owners had a chance to remove the inventory before the demolition.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the demolitions "reflect the fait accompli policies of Sharon on the ground, knocking down homes, livelihoods."

Raanan Gissin, Sharon's aide, rejected the accusation saying, "when (the Palestinians) really take action against terrorism then they can come and complain about our policies."

In another demolition, in the West Bank town of Dura near Hebron, troops early Tuesday leveled the house of a militant from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. The army said the militiaman was responsible for carrying out attacks on Israelis, including one in which a soldier was killed.

Israel has reoccupied every West Bank town and village, except Jericho, since the summer in response to dozens of suicide bombings and shootings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Arafat blamed the army's presence for the delay of Palestinian elections which were to have been held Monday. "They have to withdraw," he told CNN, dismissing Israeli claims that the restrictions are necessary to keep bombers out of the country.

The United States has demanded the Palestinians reform their government and hold elections, as a precondition to statehood.

Meanwhile, Egypt invited Palestinian factions to Cairo on Wednesday to continue talks on a proposal for a one-year halt on attacks against Israeli civilians. The proposal, which has Arafat's backing, has been rejected by the militant Islamic Jihad group. Hamas has not made its position public.

Egypt hopes a cease-fire declaration would weaken Sharon's popularity and boost the election chances of dovish Israeli opposition leader Amram Mitzna ahead of the Israeli elections. Mitzna wants an immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.