Defiant Israeli Offensive
Continues Despite Powell Visit

By Matt Spetalnick

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel kept up its sweeping military offensive in the West Bank on Friday despite the arrival of Secretary of State Colin Powell on a crucial mission aimed at ending more than 18 months of bloodshed.
In defiance of U.S. demands and international pressure to halt the nearly two-week-old campaign in Palestinian-ruled areas, Israeli tanks and troops maintained a tight grip on most of the West Bank's most important cities.
Powell flew in from Jordan late on Thursday and was due to hold talks in coming days with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is penned in by Israeli armor besieging his West Bank compound in Ramallah.
Taking an upbeat view, Powell told reporters in Amman: "I have been encouraged by the expressions of support that I have received as I traveled to the region."
But Arab leaders have also made no secret of their feeling that the United States has given its chief Middle East ally too much time and free rein to press ahead with the West Bank onslaught.
Powell, adding higher profile to Washington's reactivated Middle East peacemaking role, will face formidable obstacles in his bid to forge a lasting cease-fire as a first step toward reviving negotiations on a final settlement.
The latest crisis has left Israelis and Palestinians even more deeply entrenched in a generations-old conflict over their peoples' competing claims on land sacred to both sides.
Israeli forces have fought house to house, carried out mass arrests and bombarded cities, towns and refugee camps with tanks and helicopter gunships since launching an offensive they say is intended to root out militants behind a wave of suicide attacks.
But the campaign has also taken a heavy toll on the civilian population, especially in the main refugee camp in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
There Israeli troops faced bitter resistance until the last major group of about 40 holdouts -- exhausted and nearly out of ammunition -- surrendered on Thursday.
Residents of the camp have recounted tales of mangled bodies left littering streets and alleyways, but the accounts have been impossible to verify independently because the army has declared the area off-limits to journalists.
Palestinian officials have accused Israeli forces of carrying out "massacres," but the army has dismissed such accusations as pure propaganda, insisting it has done its utmost to avoid civilian casualties.
The army says it has killed at least 200 Palestinians, most of them militants, since launching its campaign on March 29, but Palestinian cabinet member Saeb Erekat put the toll at 500 -- though he gave no indication of what he based the estimate on.
Sharon's resolve to keep up the military campaign has been hardened by the latest suicide attack, a bus bombing on Wednesday that killed eight Israelis near the city of Haifa.
He has promised to expedite the offensive but has insisted Israeli forces will not pull out of any areas until they complete their mission which began after a suicide bomber killed 28 people at an Israeli seaside hotel.
"I want to tell you that we intend to continue the fight against terrorism. I told our American friends," Sharon said. "I informed them that the operation will continue, and it will continue."
In what appeared to be a goodwill gesture ahead of Powell's visit, the army said it had pulled out of 24 Palestinian villages. But troops also launched fresh raids into two West Bank towns and a refugee camp.
Palestinian officials called the partial withdrawal a publicity stunt, and Powell said the moves were inadequate.
Tanks and troops showed no sign of budging from the West Bank population centers they still hold. They occupy Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem, where a standoff between soldiers and armed Palestinians continued at the Church of the Nativity.
The White House softened its approach on Thursday, saying Bush believed Sharon was "committed to peace." Nevertheless, Powell was expected to press Sharon face-to-face to speed up the withdrawal when they meet on Friday morning.
Israeli leaders are normally careful to avoid alienating the United States, which provides the Jewish state with $3 billion in annual aid, but Sharon has made a career of testing the limits of Washington's tolerance.
Powell said he would hold talks with Arafat on Saturday -- a decision Sharon has called a "tragic mistake." Sharon has called Arafat an enemy and tried to isolate him by surrounding his headquarters with tanks.
The Israeli leader even refused to let European Union envoys visit him there last week, but Israeli officials say they will do nothing to prevent Powell seeing him.
The White House, which has repeatedly demanded Arafat do more to rein in militants, urged Palestinians and Arab nations on Wednesday to "step up their responsibilities to denounce terrorism."
At least 1,263 Palestinians and 446 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
The latest Israeli-Palestinian blood-letting has raised fears the violence could spread across the region and beyond.
A truck filled with cooking gas exploded near a Jewish shrine on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, killing six people, including four German tourists, witnesses said.
The Tunisian government struggled to dispel suspicions the explosion at the ancient El Ghriba synagogue was a suicide bombing prompted by Arab anger at Israel's West Bank offensive.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said however the blast appeared to be a "deliberate terrorist attack" and not an accident, as Tunisian authorities maintained.

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