TULKAREM, West Bank (AP) Israeli troops searched homes and traded fire with Palestinians as the military took over an entire Palestinian town yesterday, a first in 16 months of fighting and another blow to beleaguered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Stepping up its actions, Israel sent tanks into a neighborhood in the West Bank town of Nablus early today.

In the first incursion, dozens of tanks rumbled through the streets of Tulkarem, emptied by a military curfew. Troops firing tank-mounted machine guns fought with Palestinian militiamen and rounded up suspected militants. The exchanges of gunfire went on through the night. Three Palestinians were killed and 23 wounded in clashes in Tulkarem and in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Israel said the seizure was in response to lethal attacks on Israelis and that it was doing the job Arafat failed to do rounding up militants.

In the second incursion, Israeli tanks drove within one-third of a mile of Nablus” city center before dawn today. Residents heard sporadic gunfire, but apparently there was no heavy Palestinian resistance.

A Palestinian security official said he was informed by Israeli counterparts that the Nablus raid was limited in scope, unlike the Tulkarem operation.

There was no immediate comment by the Israeli military. However, Israeli government officials have said that in addition to Tulkarem, other Palestinian towns might be targeted.

The Palestinians accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to bring down Arafat and destroy all prospects for a resumption of peace talks.

A defiant Arafat said the Palestinians would resist the Israeli incursion, saying Israel “crossed all the red lines” by taking over Tulkarem.

“Our people will never keep silence about all of these Israeli attacks,” he told visitors at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, which has been surrounded by Israeli tanks since Friday.

In a rare reference to his own mortality, Arafat also suggested he might not be around to see the establishment of a Palestinian state. “I swear to God I will see the Palestinian state, as a martyr or while still alive,” Arafat said.

Israel”s Cabinet has not formally decided to try to topple Arafat, and government officials have said the latest actions were intended to pressure him to crack down on militants.

Israel has raided Palestinian-ruled areas many times since fighting broke out in September 2000. However, yesterday marked the first time Israel took control of an entire major Palestinian town since Palestinian self-rule began in 1994.

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