Defying stinging US criticism of its invasion of a string of Palestinian towns, Israel upped the stakes in its campaign to smoke out the killers of a cabinet minister, assassinating a senior Hamas militant and demolishing more houses.
Palestinian security officials also accused Israel of staging yet another incursion into a refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip.
The Israeli army denied the report on Tuesday, saying it had razed houses used by Palestinian snipers in an area already under Israeli control.
Israeli forces swept into six major Palestinian towns last week with tanks and troops, sparking gunbattles on the streets which have left at least 26 Palestinians dead and several Israeli soldiers injured.
An Israeli soldier keeps watch from his position on a tank while another speaks on a field radio at a checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem October 22, 2001. (Natalie Behring/Reuters)
The operation, the largest since the Palestinians were given self-rule in 1994, has re-ignited massive tensions in the region and scuttled US efforts to calm the 13-month crisis and allow Washington to wage its anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan with wide Arab backing.
The United States, which had taken a low-key approach since Israel sent in the heavy armor, delivered one of its sternest rebukes yet to the Jewish state, telling it to get out of Palestinian areas and stay out.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker condemned "Israeli defense force actions that have killed numerous Palestinian civilians over the weekend".
"Israeli defense forces should be withdrawn immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas and no further such incursions should be made," he added.
Reeker termed as "unacceptable" the deaths of "innocent civilians" and said the Israeli incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas "have contributed to a significant escalation in tension and violence".
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has grown used to such public dressing downs, and on Monday insisted his troops were only re-occupying land to force Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to arrest and extradite the killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
He said he would withdraw his forces when his conditions have been met.
Meanwhile the fighting continued, with Palestinians reporting Israeli shell fire hitting an outhouse of a religious hospital in Bethelehem, scene of some of the heaviest clashes and famous as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Church leaders have also protested Israel's huge armed presence there.
The hardline Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) said it killed Zeevi in retaliation for Israel's assassination of its leader two months ago.
Israeli has accused the PFLP's new leader of masterminding the killing.
Arafat's Palestinian Authority has arrested more than 30 PFLP members but says that handing them over to Israel goes far beyond its commitments set out in a ceasefire accord concluded almost a month ago at US insistence.
Israel, which re-activated its controversial policy of killing Palestinian militants 10 days ago, on Monday succeeded in liquidating a senior member of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas in Nablus.
Copyright © 2001 AFP