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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israeli Tanks Assault Towns in the West Bank

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli forces widened their offensive into the West Bank on Monday, briefly entering Bethlehem, occupying several other towns and continuing a sweep for militants in fully occupied Ramallah.

The tanks rolled into southern Bethlehem just before sunrise, witnesses said, stopping about 500 meters from the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Forces also moved into the surrounding villages of Al Khader and Beit Jalla, witnesses said.

A few hours after the incursion, the tanks left Al Khader, and they also pulled back from Bethlehem to patrol the edge of the town.

But witnesses said that a total of about 40 Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers had gathered on the northern edge of Bethlehem. Several buses carrying Israeli troops had also arrived and people were anticipating a new offensive, witnesses said.

Israeli forces imposed a curfew in Beit Jalla and occupied buildings that gave them views into Bethlehem.

In the major West Bank town of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers refused to let Palestinian President Yasser Arafat leave his office for a fourth day. In a televised address Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Arafat "an enemy of Israel" responsible for a bloody series of suicide bombings against Israelis.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat dismissed Sharon's speech, saying it was "void of substance, void of hope, void of realism."

The expansion of the four-day Israeli offensive in the West Bank began Sunday night when Israeli bulldozers and about 60 tanks moved into the northern town of Qalqilya, said the city's governor, Mustafa Malki.

The Israeli forces quickly took control of the town, and the army said troops were searching for suspects and weapons and intended to "destroy the terrorist infrastructure" in the town. One soldier was seriously wounded from an explosion during a house search in Qalqilya, the military said.

Four of the suicide bombers who struck in Israel in the last five days came from the northern West Bank and a female bomber who hit Jerusalem on Friday was from the Bethlehem area.

On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio: "We are defending our homes. We have no other place. We are going to defend our homes with all our strength."

Also Monday, the Israeli military said that soldiers had seized positions overlooking the West Bank town of Tulkarem, near Qalqiliya, tightening the closure of the town.

At a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, top officials from Islamic countries Monday urged the United Nations Security Council to intervene to protect Palestinians.

Foreign ministers and representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned Israel's weekend incursions and the encirclement of Arafat's headquarters (See Briefs, Page 16).

But suicide bombings Sunday threatened to fuel Israel's resolve to continue the offensive.

Israeli troops fired on a group of Palestinian police attempting to surrender in Ramallah late Sunday, killing five and injuring several more, said a policeman in the building and Palestinian officials.

In a statement, the Israeli military said "wanted men" were in the building and one of them, wearing an explosives belt, opened fire on the Israelis. The soldiers chased him and shot him dead, the statement said.

Israel warned that foreign journalists were at risk and must leave the West Bank town. A Boston Globe reporter, Anthony Shadid, was shot and wounded in the shoulder Sunday in Ramallah.

Jordan, facing mounting public pressure to show its revulsion at Israel's crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank, is considering expelling Israel's ambassador, officials and diplomats said Monday.

Also, more than 1,000 students at Jordan University held a rally Monday chanting pro-Palestinian slogans, burning an Israeli flag and demanding that Jordan cut diplomatic ties with Israel.

Pro-Palestinian protests drew thousands of people Sunday in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Oman, Sudan and Syria.