TULKARM (West Bank): Israeli troops rounded up at least 1,000 Palestinians in the West Bank city of Tulkarm yesterday in a fresh sweep for wanted militants after a suicide bomber from the region struck a nearby Israeli town.
Palestinian officials denounced the army swoop, accusing Israel of intensifying its clampdown on Palestinians seeking independence while the world's attention was turned to war in Iraq. Israel said the sweep was justified by security concerns.
Soldiers in tanks and armoured vehicles backed by helicopters imposed a curfew here and searched homes for militants before telling males aged 14 to 40 to gather in the courtyard of a school or face punishment, residents said.
Palestinian witnesses said about 2,000 people were rounded up. The Israeli army said it was about half that number.
At least 11 were identified as wanted militants and taken into custody, military sources said. Most others were freed after identity checks and some were still being questioned. Troops were also searching houses for weapons.
It was the largest round-up of Palestinians here for a year and came after an Islamic militant from a nearby village blew himself up outside a cafe in the Israeli seaside town of Netanya on Sunday, wounding 30 people.
Palestinians launched an uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in September 2000 after peace talks with Israel envisaging a Palestinian state in the two territories stalled.
This (mass roundup) is an exploitation of the war on Iraq. The army's arrest of this number of Palestinians is collective punishment, said senior Palestinian minister Saeb Erekat.
We urge the international community not to allow Israel to exploit war on Iraq to escalate its suppressive measures against the Palestinian people, he said.
An Israeli government official said: The army carries out continuous security operations in the territories to thwart terrorism, including the murderous attack in Netanya.
The United States, chief mediator in the conflict, is now preoccupied with war in Iraq and facing rising anti-American resentment in the Arab world. It has urged Israel to restrain military operations and called on Palestinians to curb attacks. Reuters