Israel raids West Bank, thousands confined

Israel’s largest raid in the West Bank for months entered its second day today, with tens of thousands of Palestinians confined to their Nablus homes as soldiers searched for suspected militants.

The military said soldiers uncovered the second explosives laboratory in the city in two days yesterday, pledging to maintain the open-ended sweep through the overcrowded warren of paths and streets in Nablus until it fulfils its goal - detaining the city’s top militants and heading off attacks against Israelis.

Palestinian officials said the offensive threatened efforts to restart peace negotiations.

The raid began before at 3am local time yesterday, when about 80 4x4s, armoured vehicles and bulldozers poured into Nablus, witnesses said. Soldiers closed the main entrance to the city, known as a hotbed of militant activity, and the bulldozers erected huge piles of rubble to block off key roads, witnesses said.

It was first large-scale operation in the West Bank since Israeli forces entered Nablus last July 19 and surrounded a security compound to arrest suspected militants.

The military broke into transmissions of local television and radio stations, broadcasting orders to people to remain indoors and warning that the clampdown would remain in effect for several days, residents said. The army said the road closures and curfew were necessary to avoid civilian casualties.

On the air, troops read the names of seven wanted militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, and warned residents not to give shelter to the fugitives.

Soldiers moved from door to door, entering homes in search of suspects, concentrating on the Old City, a section of rundown buildings and narrow alleyways.

At one point, a small group of nervous soldiers forced a Palestinian youth to lead them into a home. The soldiers then took him, along with several young Palestinian men, into a military vehicle.

Israel’s Supreme Court in 2005 banned the practice of using Palestinian civilians as “human shields” to search homes for explosives or militants ahead of soldiers. The army had no immediate comment on yesterday’s incident, which was filmed by AP Television News.

Sporadic clashes were reported as soldiers were pelted with stones and cement blocks, and exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen, the army said. Two soldiers and four Palestinians were wounded.

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