Israel Conducts Mass Roundup of Palestinians
By Muin Shadeed
TULKARM, West Bank (Reuters - 2 April) - Israeli troops rounded up at least 1,000 Palestinians in the West Bank city of Tulkarm on Wednesday 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 armored vehicles backed by helicopters imposed a curfew in Tulkarm 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 in Tulkarm 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 told Reuters.
An Israeli government official said: "The army carries out continuous security operations in the territories to thwart terrorism, including the murderous attack in Netanya on Sunday."
UNITED STATES URGES RESTRAINT
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.
Palestinian violence has tailed off somewhat since U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq on March 20, while Israel has eased off on raids against Islamic militants in Gaza.
In response to Sunday's bombing, which the Islamic Jihad said was a gift to the people of Iraq, Israel razed the home of the 19-year-old bomber in a village outside Tulkarm on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces demolished the Hebron home of a militant who the army said had shot dead an Israeli and carried out many other attacks.
Palestinians and human rights organizations condemn house demolitions as collective punishment, while Israel says the practice is necessary to deter attacks.
Israeli forces have detained thousands of Palestinians over the course of the conflict, many of them in citywide dragnets.
About 4,800 remained in jail as of early March -- 1,400 serving prison sentences, 1,090 undergoing legal proceedings and some 2,400 in detention without charge, the Israeli human rights group B'tselem said, quoting army and prison figures.
In Ramallah, Palestinian hospital officials said a 17-year-old Palestinian died of gunshot wounds suffered in a stone-throwing clash with soldiers.
At least 1,960 Palestinians and 727 Israelis have been killed since the uprising began 30 months ago.