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Israel Spurns America, Increases Fighting in Palestinian Territory

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- JERUSALEM

Despite a U.S. demand for immediate withdrawal and an end to the killing of civilians, Israeli forces dug deeper into Palestinian territory Monday and waged fresh battles in Bethlehem as violence spilled across the West Bank and to Lebanon.

The spiraling violence threatens to undermine the Bush administration’s efforts to muster Arab support for its war on terrorism. Israel’s broadest military campaign against the Palestinians in many years also is placing severe strains on both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government and Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

Israel launched the unprecedented operations in the aftermath of the assassination of a Cabinet minister by a radical Palestinian faction.

Reflecting Washington’s concern that the escalation here will hurt U.S. interests elsewhere, the U.S. State Department issued an unusually strong statement demanding Israel withdraw its forces from Palestinian-ruled areas “immediately” and halt future incursions.

In addition, department spokesman Philip T. Reeker called on the Israeli army to exercise “greater discipline and restraint” and deplored the killing of “numerous innocent civilians” whose deaths are “unacceptable.”

Reeker also called on Arafat to halt “violence and terror and bring to justice the terrorists whose actions are betraying Palestinian interests.”

Israel is demanding the arrest and extradition of the killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi and says its invasion of the West Bank is meant to force Arafat to comply.

But Palestinian militants rebelled Monday at Arafat’s orders to hold fire and at his decision to arrest several members of a radical faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.“The Palestinian Authority is trying to destroy us, but it is the Palestinian Authority that will be destroyed,” Khader abu Abbara, a PFLP leader in the hard-hit town of Bethlehem, vowed in a broadcast on Bethlehem 2000 Radio.

Abu Abbara’s threat reflects the political risks and potential schisms within Palestinian factions if Arafat presses ahead with a crackdown on people seen as terrorists by Israel but freedom fighters by many Palestinians.

Sharon, meanwhile, had to fend off a possible mutiny from the center-left Labor Party, his principal partner in the governing coalition. Following a heated debate, the party’s parliamentary leadership laid out the terms under which it would bolt the coalition.

If Israel does not withdraw from the newly reoccupied parts of the West Bank, or if it becomes clear that the goal of the military operation is to crush the Palestinian Authority, the Labor Party will quit, a party official said.

Shimon Peres, foreign minister and head of the party, said in Washington, D.C. that Labor should remain in the government. But Yossi Beilin, Peres’ onetime protege and an architect of the landmark 1993 Oslo peace accords that have been all but annulled, said Labor was making a historic mistake.

Israeli media and political discourse for two days has been full of the Lebanon analogy. It was Sharon who led Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, promising that it would be a short and limited mission to push back Palestinian guerrillas. Israel troops remained in Lebanon until last year.