Heavy West Bank Death Toll
As Israelis Ignore Bush Plea

By Atef Saad

NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - Twenty-five Palestinians have been killed in one of the bloodiest days since Israel began a military offensive in the West Bank, despite President Bush's call for Israeli forces to withdraw.
Any faint hopes raised by Bush's demand and a meeting between U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni and besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Friday were dashed by the heavy death toll in Palestinian cities and refugee camps on the West Bank.
Bush was joined at his ranch in Texas Friday by British Prime Minster Tony Blair for a weekend summit where the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will top the agenda.
And in a hardening of the U.S. stance toward Israel, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Israel it should withdraw military forces from Palestinian areas "without delay" and not use the days before his trip to the region this weekend as a reason to continue incursions.
Israel says the eight-day-old offensive is aimed at rooting out people suspected of planning and carrying out a series of suicide bombings which have claimed scores of Israeli lives.
The operation first met with U.S. understanding for Israeli defense needs. But the situation changed dramatically on Thursday night when Bush declared "enough is enough" and called on Israel to withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities.
Some commentators in Israel believe Israeli forces will now step up the pace of their operation to try to achieve their goals in the next few days -- rather than the month originally envisaged -- before growing world pressure forces a halt.
However, the White House stopped short Friday of criticizing Israel for not already pulling back. Spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in Texas: "The president recognizes that in a region that's been marred by violence for decades, major events don't necessarily happen overnight."
The White House also said Powell had no plans "at this moment" to meet Arafat, who Washington has accused of not doing enough to prevent attacks on Israel.
Clashes and Israeli strikes gathered in intensity Friday. The deadliest single Israeli attack targeted a group of militants in the northern West Bank village of Toubas.
The Islamic militant group Hamas confirmed six of its members, including Qais Idwan, head of its military wing in nearby Jenin, were killed when the house they were in was bombarded by Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships.
An Israeli security source said Idwan was suspected of being behind the devastating bombing in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya at the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover last week that killed 26 people and helped trigger the army's offensive.
"Our retaliation will be very harsh and cruel according to the measure of the crime," Sheikh Jamal Abu al-Heija, a Hamas political official in Jenin, told Reuters.
Hamas has been at the forefront of a bombing campaign against Israelis since the start of the Palestinian uprising. Israel has killed dozens of militants in a policy it justifies as self-defense, but Palestinians call assassination.
An Israeli missile strike killed three Palestinians in a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian sources said. Israeli sources had no comment.
Amid the mayhem, U.S. Middle East envoy Zinni met Arafat under the guns of Israeli tanks at the Palestinian president's besieged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Palestinian officials said the two men agreed at a 90-minute meeting that a series of "broad U.S.-Palestinian meetings would be held in the coming hours."
But they later said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had refused to let Arafat meet the Palestinian officials who were due to see Zinni and the talks with Zinni might be scrapped.
Oil prices fell heavily Friday as pressure from the United States on Israel to end its raids soothed fears that crude supplies might be hit by a wider war involving the region's Arab oil-producing nations.
However, on the streets of North Africa and the Gulf, thousands of demonstrators appeared unmollified by the U.S. move and defied teargas to protest against the West Bank offensive.
Demonstrators in Bahrain attacked the U.S. embassy, while in Jordan, protesters marched on the Israeli embassy. Later, in New York, thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters took to the streets chanting "Free, free Palestine" and carrying signs reading "Bush, Sharon -- War Criminals."
Arafat had welcomed Bush's call for an Israeli pullout, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres praised Bush for "joining in the effort to bring about a cease-fire."
But Bush, calling for a world effort to stop suicide bombers, again attacked Arafat in a British television interview Friday as a leader who had let his people down.
"My worry is that Yasser Arafat can't perform. He's been given plenty of opportunities," Bush said.
Blair said a possible time frame for a Middle East cease-fire and a return to negotiations would be on the agenda of his summit with Bush but conceded the situation looked grim, saying "there can be few grounds for optimism at the moment."
Explosions and gunfire rang out across Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and up to 200 Palestinian gunmen and civilians remained trapped in the Church of the Nativity in a four-day-old standoff with Israeli troops.
Fighting was also intense in Nablus, the West Bank's biggest city, where nine Palestinians were killed. A police officer and four others were killed in the West Bank city of Jenin, along with one Israeli soldier.
A 14-year-old girl was killed by Israeli helicopter fire in the village of Toubas, near Jenin, and a 17-year-old youth was killed by tank fire near Nablus, witnesses and officials said.
Masked Palestinian gunmen shot dead three men suspected of collaborating with Israeli forces in Toubas, witnesses said.
In a move certain to inflame tempers, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Israeli troops forced their way into his home Friday on the pretext of conducting a search. The army had no comment.
Raising the specter of Middle East conflict spreading to a second front, Israeli jets hit the outskirts of Lebanese border towns after Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrillas attacked a number of Israeli positions in a disputed frontier area, witnesses said.
At least 1,188 Palestinians and 414 Israelis have been killed since the uprising began.

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