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Despite U.S. Demands, Israel Refuses to Vacate West Bank

By Daniel Williams
THE WASHINGTON POST -- beit rima-west bank

Israeli troops withdrew from this rural township Thursday after a raid in which six Palestinians were killed, but soldiers and tanks remained in six other West Bank towns in defiance of appeals by the United States for a pullback. Israeli officials said that any withdrawl would take place by Israel’s schedule, not a clock set in Washington.

The weeklong occupation of areas under Palestinian jurisdiction is at the center of a festering dispute between the Bush administration and Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell called for an immediate pullback.

The unwillingness of Sharon to comply has irritated President Bush and comes at a time when he is trying to hold together a loose coalition, including pro-Palestinian Arab governments, in a long-term war on terrorism.

Sharon was meeting with key cabinet members late Thursday night to decide on whether to pull troops back or not. Preisdent Moshe Katsav hinted at the decision Thursday: the army will leave when “its mission is complete,” he said.

Any future withdrawal may only be temporary, said Gen. Amos Malka, the head of army intelligence. “We don’t have to give the Palestinian Authority any kind of guarantee that we won’t come back,” he told reporters.

Sharon continued his practice of setting various, changeable conditions which the Palestinians must meet. Currently, they include handing over suspects in the assassination of right-wing tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi and imposing of “quiet” by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli said it raided Beit Rima in pursuit of suspects in the assassination of Zeevi.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has so far turned over no one to the Israelis, and appears unable to keep a variety of underground militias from battling Israeli troops. An official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the group that claimed it killed Zeevi and which opposes peace talks, said in an interview: “Arafat can do what he wants to keep his diplomatic channels open. It doesn’t affect us. We are simply fighting the Israelis.”

Politically, Beit Rima is largely aligned with Fatah, the main faction in Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. But there is a big contingent of PFLP operatives, residents say. Israeli investigators claim underground cells were formed in Beit Rima to carry out Zeevi’s assassination. The PFLP said it killed the minister to avenge the assassination by Israeli helicopter rocket attack of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, in August. Graffiti at the entrance of town pledges to make Israel pay for Mustafa’s death.

Thursday, disoriented residents picked up the pieces from damage left by dozens of commandos, tanks and a pair of Apache armed helicopters.