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Sharon Vows West Bank Action To Continue, Ignoring Demands

By Tracy Wilkinson

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in his strongest defiance yet of Washington, D.C., vowed Monday to press ahead with a massive military offensive in the West Bank. As if to underscore the point, Israeli combat helicopters pummeled a refugee camp and infantry took hundreds of Palestinians prisoner.

Sharon ignored demands from President Bush and other world leaders to end Israel’s invasion of Palestinian cities, and instead expanded the deployment of tanks throughout the West Bank countryside. In a speech to his Parliament, Sharon suggested that far from withdrawal, Israel’s occupation is open-ended.

But as pressure mounted, the Israeli army announced early Tuesday that it would begin pulling out from two small cities, Tulkarm and Kalkilya, which had remained relatively quiet. The White House said it was “a start.”

In Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city, fighting that had raged for four days began to subside Monday. Scores of men -- fighters and civilians -- surrendered. Inside the bloodied Casbah, the old labyrinthine center of the city, wounded lay dying at a mosque.

In Jenin, by contrast, Israeli troops, armor and gunships continued to battle stiff resistance from lightly armed Palestinian fighters hiding in a crowded refugee camp. Israeli and Palestinian officials estimated at least 100 Palestinians were killed in the last couple of days in the Jenin camp. On Monday, two Israeli soldiers were killed and four wounded.

Palestinian gunmen “seem to have decided to fight to the last, to make the battle as bloody as possible,” Israeli Brig. Gen. Eyal Shline said of the Jenin operation. He said several men feigned surrender, only to blow themselves up in suicide attacks on soldiers.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which tradition holds is the birthplace of Jesus, a huge fire erupted during a gun battled between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II said violence in the Holy Land had escalated to “unimaginable and intolerable levels.”

In Jerusalem, Sharon went before a special session of the Knesset, or Israeli Parliament, to lambaste Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and announce he was taking his government farther to the right with the inclusion of three new right-wing ministers.

Sharon dedicated most of his hourlong speech, in which he frequently was heckled, to harsh criticism of Arafat. He reiterated that he regards it as impossible to make peace with Arafat, a position that deeply complicates this week’s diplomatic mission by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

He said he will not call off the offensive “until the mission has been accomplished, until Arafat’s terrorist infrastructures are uprooted” and until fugitives have been arrested.