JERUSALEM (AP) Israeli tanks moved deeper into West Bank yesterday, tightening their grip on biblical Bethlehem and five other towns in the widest operation against the Palestinians in years.

Paul Wong
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives to a cabinet meeting a day after troops entered two West Bank towns in retaliation for the death of a cabinet minister.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Three Palestinians were killed yesterday, and the Palestinian Health Ministry said a teen-age boy wounded in fighting last month died of his wounds.

The three-day-old assault, retaliation for the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister by a radical PLO faction, drew harsh international criticism and set off disagreements within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”s coalition government.

In New York, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday that Israel does not intend to stay in the areas it entered, according to a spokesman for Israel”s U.N. Mission.

“We do not want to overthrow the Palestinian Authority,” the spokesman quoted Peres as saying.

Some members of the moderate Labor Party threatened to bolt the coalition a move that could badly hobble the government if the escalation continued.

The focus of violence yesterday was Bethlehem, where Palestinians said three people were killed by Israeli gunfire a police officer and a civilian in a nearby refugee camp and another civilian when a shell landed near a hospital. Israel”s army said Palestinians threw a bomb at an Israeli tank near the refugee camp, setting off an exchange of fire, and were looking into the hospital incident.

The Palestinian Health Ministry also announced that 15-year-old Ahmed Abu Mandeel, who was shot in the chest during a clash with soldiers in the Gaza Strip on Sept. 29, died of his injuries yesterday in a hospital in Amman, Jordan, where he had been sent for treatment.

Palestinians reported two injuries in yesterday”s fighting when a tank shell exploded 50 yards from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, marking the birthplace of Jesus. The Israeli military, holding tank positions several miles away, was also checking this report.

Palestinian gunmen, meanwhile, opened fire from nearby Beit Jalla on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo in a disputed part of Jerusalem, Israeli police said.

A few miles north of Jerusalem, Israeli troops also moved farther into Ramallah the seat of Yasser Arafat”s government in the West Bank and took over the Palestinian Local Affairs Ministry.

Israeli officials said the moves were made necessary by Arafat”s inaction against militant groups refusing to honor a Sept. 26 cease-fire, and dismissed as rhetoric Palestinian claims Arafat had outlawed such groups in recent days.

Palestinians say Arafat arrested 20 members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for Wednesday”s killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The PFLP said it was avenging the Aug. 27 killing of its own leader, whom Israel accused of attacks on civilians.

“The state of Israel has the right to defend the lives of Israelis. We don”t have interest in staying in Palestinian cities. That”s not the goal of this activity,” said Israeli Cabinet secretary Gideon Saar. “If there will be quiet, we”ll pull out.”

Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said the Palestinian leader told Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday that the United States must pressure Israel to withdraw. “This issue will be a test (of) the willingness of the U.S. to keep its coalition, or to sacrifice the Arabs and Muslims to satisfy” Israel, Abu Rdeneh added.

He was referring to U.S. concerns that Israeli-Palestinian fighting could hinder efforts to maintain the support of moderate Arab nations for U.S. operations against Afghanistan”s Taliban government and terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

The Israeli incursions into the outskirts of six of the eight Palestinian towns in the West Bank were the most extensive since Israel began handing over land to the Palestinians in 1994 under interim peace accords.

Fighting began in Sept. 2000 as the Palestinians and Israel”s previous, more dovish government could not agree on terms for a final peace deal. Since then, 699 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 186 on the Israeli side.

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II expressed concern about the new flare-up, saying during noon prayers that “violence is for everybody only a path of death and destruction which dishonors the holiness of God and the dignity of man.”

At yesterday”s weekly Cabinet session, Sharon said peace negotiations could resume only after all Palestinian violence stops, rogue militants are disarmed, militants are arrested and Zeevi”s killers turned over.

Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik said her Labor party should walk out of the government over the incursions. “We are not sitting there in order to occupy territories,” she told Army Radio.

But Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, from Sharon”s more hawkish Likud, said Arafat should be expelled from the Palestinian territories.

A survey published yesterday showed the Israeli population no less divided. The Gallup poll, with a 4.5 percent margin of error, found 38 percent favored all-out war against the Palestinians and 38 percent preferred accelerated peace talks.

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