BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) – Israeli tanks entered Bethlehem early today, stopping 500 yards from the Church of the Nativity, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus, witnesses said.

Paul Wong
A poster of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is seen behind an Israeli soldier on top of an army tank in central Ramallah yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

Earlier, dozens of Israeli tanks rolled into the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, marking a widening of the Israeli operation that began Friday when Israeli forces broke into the compound around Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s office in the West Bank town of Ramallah and took up positions just outside his office. Other tanks took control of the town.

The Israeli military refused to comment about the Bethlehem incursion. Tanks and armored vehicles were seen approaching Bethlehem overnight. The invasion began at 5:30 a.m., shortly before daybreak.

In a statement, the Israeli military said its forces took control of Qalqiliya and were conducting searches for suspected militants and weapons, “to destroy the terrorist infrastructure” in the town. The statement mentioned exchanges of fire but did not refer to casualties.

Yesterday, saying Israel is in a war for survival, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to smash Palestinian militants in an uncompromising offensive, as he addressed a nation rattled by five suicide bombings in five days, including back-to-back attacks yesterday that killed 15 Israelis.

In an expansion of Israel’s “Operation Protective Wall,” dozens of Israeli tanks entered the West Bank town of Qalqiliya late yesterday, governor Mustafa Malki said. Electricity was cut off and exchanges of fire could be heard. Armored vehicles also amassed near biblical Bethlehem.

In Ramallah, under Israeli control since Friday, dozens of European peace activists, their arms raised and holding white flags, marched past bewildered Israeli soldiers into Yasser Arafat’s office to protest the confinement of the Palestinian leader by Israel. The protesters said they would stay with Arafat, who has accused Israel of trying to kill him, human shields.

Earlier in the day, Israeli forces surrounding the building exchanged fire with Arafat’s guards, and Palestinian officials said Arafat was just a few yards from the fighting. Several guards were wounded, two of them seriously. At least 15 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers have been killed in Ramallah since Friday.

The Israeli army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, acknowledged that Arafat was at risk, even if he was not a target.

Addressing the nation in a five-minute televised speech, Sharon said Israel is fighting a “war over our home” and branded Arafat an enemy of the Jewish state and the “entire free world,” as well as a danger to the Middle East.

“We must fight against this terrorism, fight with no compromise, pull up these wild plants by the roots, smash their infrastructure, because there is no compromise with terrorism,” Sharon said, adding that only then a cease-fire would be possible.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the speech was “void of substance, void of hope, void of realism.” Erekat said Sharon “slammed the door tonight in the face of all of those who are trying to de-escalate.”

The Cabinet met yesterday to review plans for the next stage of the offensive, for which 20,000 reserve soldiers were mobilized, at a cost of millions of dollars a month.

Still, some expressed unease over what they called the campaign’s vague goals. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange dropped by 5 percent points yesterday, and the dollar rose 2.8 percent against the shekel.

Some newspaper commentaries said the military campaign was mainly driven by Sharon’s need to settle a personal score with Arafat, who in 1982 was besieged by Sharon’s forces in Beirut, but was able to leave Lebanon with thousands of fighters.

“This explains Sharon’s tremendous urge to humiliate Arafat,” Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

In the first of yesterday’s two suicide blasts, a Palestinian from the Islamic militant group Hamas blew himself up in a restaurant, killing himself and 15 diners, and wounding more than 40.

The blast tore away much of the roof and shattered tables and windows. Twisted piles of metal covered the floor. “Even the moderately injured were on fire,” said a witness, Shimon Sabag, who helped administer first aid.

Two hours later, a suicide bomber walked into a paramedics’ dispatch station in the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank and detonated his explosives. The attacker died and four medics were wounded, including a trainee who was in serious condition.

President Bush, who has defended Israel’s offensive, condemned yesterday’s bombings and said they would not “deter him from the pursuit of peace,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations said U.S. officials have suggested to Israel that it would not have to act immediately on a U.N. Security Council resolution passed Saturday, since its call for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory had no timetable. “Everyone is aware of this, including the Americans,” the ambassador, Yehuda Lancry, told Israel Army Radio.

In Ramallah, the Palestinians’ commercial center, Israeli troops commandeered homes and buildings, set up sandbag emplacements draped with camouflage netting on residential streets, erected barricades and dug trenches, making the hilly streets into a near-impassable maze.

There were sporadic exchanges of fire. Reporters saw two bodies of Palestinians lying in a street in the center of the city, near 15 Palestinians kneeling against a wall under Israeli army guard. Soldiers moved house-to-house and in one case herded several handcuffed Palestinian policemen into a military vehicle.

Israel has been trying to isolate Arafat, confining him to a three-floor building in the sprawling government compound in Ramallah.

In the building yesterday, a smiling Arafat hugged the peace activists visiting him. Israeli-Canadian, Netta Golan who has been living in Ramallah for the past few months, was among 30 activists who said they would remain with Arafat as human shields.

“I know that the only chance for Israelis to have peace and security is for the Palestinians to have peace and security,” Golan, 30, said in a telephone interview.

Kitrey, the Israeli army spokesman, suggested that Israeli forces would try to tighten the isolation around Arafat, while keeping him relatively comfortable. “He won’t be hit. He will eat, drink, he will think about the situation and the deep hole he got himself and his people into,” Kitrey said.

Israel declared Ramallah a closed military zone and said foreigners, including journalists, would be removed. The Foreign Press Association in Israel issued a protest, saying media must be allowed to cover a major story.

Anthony Shadid, a Washington-based Boston Globe reporter, was shot in the shoulder yesterday while standing in the doorway of a Ramallah shop, Globe foreign editor James F. Smith said. Shadid was conscious and in stable condition in a private Arab hospital in Ramallah, Smith said. It was not clear who shot him and the Israeli army was investigating.

Violence erupted in September 2000, destroying peace negotiations and helping bring the hardline Sharon to power. In the past 18 months, 1,264 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and on 416 on the Israeli side.

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