Israel has defied US calls to withdraw and swept into Hebron. The move comes just hours after a US-led deal was struck to lift the siege on Arafat. Scharon still stalls the UN fact-finding team to Jenin.
The only major town in the West Bank that has so far been untouched by the Israeli military offensive in the past month has now been sucked into the Middle East violence.
Israeli tanks and armoured personnel rolled into Hebron in a pre-dawn raid despite signs that Israel may be close to ending its month-long Operation Defensive Shield elsewhere in the West Bank.
The Israeli newspaper "Haaretz" reported that Israeli soldiers combed houses in Hebron for weapons, explosives and wanted extremists. Seven people reportedly died in the raid.
Israel says the operation in Hebron is a response to an attack by Palestinians on Saturday at the nearby settlement of Adora, where four Jewish settlers were killed.
Some 400 Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves among 120,000 Palestinians in Hebron.
The Israeli army indicated in a statement that the Hebron offensive is for a limited time and is "not intended as a strike against the Palestinian Authority". Military sources also said that 17 militants wanted by Israel had been captured in Hebron, including two Hamas activists.
Slap in the face for the US?
Israel’s latest incursion is a further embarrassment to the United States, who has repeatedly called for a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian-occupied territories during the month-long West Bank offensive.
Moreover the occupation of Hebron comes just hours after Israelis and Palestinians accepted a US plan to allow the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to leave his besieged compound in Ramallah.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Under the American plan Israeli forces agreed to pull back from Arafat’s compound and grant him freedom of travel, once six Palestinian men wanted by Israel are moved to a Palestinian prison where they will be held by US and British guards.
Four of the six Palestinian detainees were convicted of killing Israeli cabinet minister, Rehavam Zeevi, in a hastily convened trial conducted at Mr Arafat’s compound on Thursday and sentenced to long jail terms.
Bush weclomes the freeing of Arafat
US President Bush said the deal to end the Palestinian president's siege in the city of Ramallah marked "a hopeful day for the region".
"Chairman Arafat is now free to move around and free to lead and we expect him to do so," Bush told reporters at his ranch in Texas.
"Mr Arafat must perform. Mr Arafat must do his job (by halting attacks on Israelis). He must earn my respect by leading."
Bush also had words of praise for Israel for accepting the US plan to free Arafat. "Helpful and constructive" is how he described Israel’s stance.
Israel digs in its heels over UN team to Jenin
But while the lifting of the siege on Arafat is a minor victory for the US after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s failed attempt to secure peace in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon puts the US in a tight spot with his stalling over permitting a UN fact-finding team into Jenin.
Rubble and ruins in Jenin
In New York, the United Nations Security Council yesterday gave a frustrated Secretary-General Kofi Annan another day to resolve the impasse with Israel over the fact-finding team on Jenin waiting in Geneva since last Wednesday.
After initially agreeing to the UN fact-finding mission in Jenin, the Israeli government has already delayed the UN team’s arrival with objections about its make-up and mandate.
Israeli officials fear the composition of the team and the prospect of a wide-ranging inquiry will result in some sort of a condemnation of the Israeli army’s assault on the camp.
The Palestinians claim that a massacre of hundreds took place in Jenin, while the Israelis maintain that there were only dozens of casualties in what it describes as a legitimate operation to flush out militants.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres again said Israel had nothing to hide at the camp, but was concerned at possible legal implications for Israeli witnesses who might testify.
"We can't tell our soldiers: 'You volunteer, you fight, on top of that you have to take lawyers'," he said late on Sunday.
The US, which drafted the resolution authorising the UN mission, has tried to play down the differences between Israel and the UN.