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Israeli tanks rumble into Rafah

Israeli tanks thrust into Palestinian-ruled territory in the Gaza Strip yesterday, sealing off ...

Israeli tanks thrust into Palestinian-ruled territory in the Gaza Strip yesterday, sealing off a town, destroying police outposts and raising the Israeli flag, witnesses and Palestinian officials said.

The Israeli army denied its forces had entered Palestinian-controlled areas near Rafah on the Egyptian border, but Reuters correspondents on the scene saw tanks penetrating several kilometres into southern Gaza.

The latest incursion, little more than a day after Israeli forces reoccupied part of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank town of Beit Jala, and new violence raised the temperature in the 11-month-old conflict.

At least three Palestinians and an Israeli were killed yesterday in the latest bloodshed in the Palestinian uprising.

But in a sign that both sides may be looking to pull back from the brink, Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to a ceasefire in Beit Jala that would be followed by an Israeli pullout from the mostly Christian town.

The deal, brokered by the European Union, appeared on shaky ground after heavy shooting erupted as night fell.

But following up the initiative, an EU spokesman said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel had been in contact by letter and telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on ways to try to end the violence.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat ordered his security forces to stop firing on Israeli troops as of 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) in an area of the hilltop town seized on Tuesday in response to Palestinian shooting against a nearby Jewish settlement.

Palestinian security officials said the agreement called for Israeli forces to pull out last night from Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Long after Arafat's deadline, Beit Jala echoed with shooting and Gilo, which lies across a shallow valley, was also targeted.

Reuters reporters saw Israeli tanks and bulldozers, in a show of force after an overnight shooting attack on one of its posts in the Gaza Strip, rumbling into the Rafah area to seize a main road and seal off the town.

During the operation in territory handed over to the Palestinians in 1994, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian policeman.

Calling the incursion a reoccupation, Palestinian officials said Israeli forces had burst out of the narrow corridor of land they control along the southern border Gaza shares with Egypt.

Witnesses said Israeli tanks and bulldozers cut off the main east-west road to Rafah, destroyed three Palestinian police outposts and raised the Israeli flag over one of the buildings.

In the West Bank, gunmen believed to be Israelis fired at a Palestinian car, killing a Palestinian and wounding two others, police said. Hours later an Israeli truck driver was shot dead on a road near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Palestinian officials said Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian farmer near the Arab town of Tulkarm.

Meanwhile in Washington, the U.S. said it objected to Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory as a "fundamental issue" because they reverse the agreements made over the past eight years.
The United States has spoken out against each of the Israeli military's recent incursions, including the thrust into the West Bank town of Beit Jala on Tuesday.

gulf-news.com