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Wednesday, 18 July, 2001, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Israel flexes its muscles
Masked Palestinian militants pray at the funeral of four men killed in an Israeli helicopter attack
Palestinians accuse Israel of causing an escalation
Israel has strengthened security in the West Bank in a further show of force against Palestinian militants, with extra tanks, patrols and sniffer dogs deployed in areas near larger Palestinian towns that border Israeli-controlled territory.

As Israel proceeded with the biggest movement of forces since the Palestinian uprising began 10 months ago, about 20,000 Palestinians expressed their anger at a Bethlehem funeral procession for four Palestinians who were killed in an Israeli helicopter attack on Tuesday.

Israeli tanks outside the West Bank city of Bethlehem
Israel says the movement of forces is meant to deter
A BBC correspondent in Jerusalem says Israel's troop move is designed to send a clear message that there will be a massive retaliation if the Palestinian Authority does not restrain militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a leading figure in the Middle East peace process, has told Arab League foreign ministers there are no prospects for peace while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stays in power.

"Frankly speaking, it is clear that there is no solution with Sharon. He is a man who only understands murder, strikes and war," the Egyptian news agency MENA quoted Mr Mubarak as saying.

Tensions high

Sporadic clashes erupted in the West Bank on Wednesday, and mortars were fired at a kibbutz outside the Gaza Strip and at a Gaza checkpoint, Israel Army Radio reported, but nobody has been hurt.

At the funeral procession in Bethlehem, Israeli flags were burned and rifles fired shots in the air as relatives and masked men followed the coffins, sobbing, chanting anti-Israeli slogans, and calling for revenge.

A relative of one of the four men killed in an Israeli helicopter attack is carried away after he passed out at the funeral procession
About 20,000 Palestinians marched in Bethlehem

Israeli spokesmen said that two of the men killed had been targeted for plotting an attack on civilians, and that the troops were being moved as a warning, in response to "flagrant violation" of the tattered ceasefire.

Palestinians say Israel's mobilisation of forces indicates that it is counting down to an attempt to re-occupy parts of the West Bank.

But Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, visiting London, said his country had no intention of recapturing Palestinian-controlled West Bank land.

"Contrary to the reports, we do not intend to re-conquer the territories," he told reporters.

Security measures

Mr Sharon convened his security cabinet on Wednesday, to discuss ways to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel in areas near larger West Bank towns that border Israeli territory, such as Tulkarm and Qalqilya.

A spokesman for the prime minister, Raanan. Gissin, said the measures would include additional monitoring and perhaps electronic sensors.


These reinforcements, tanks and military units are pushing the fragile situation to the edge of explosion

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, Arafat aide
Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank were reinforced on Wednesday and new positions were set up along roads to search passing cars.

Many Palestinians travelling from Bethlehem to Jerusalem bypassed the crowded checkpoint on foot, taking paths skirting the main road.

The mobilisation came after some of the worst violence in the region in recent months, including a suicide bombing and mortar attacks by Palestinians and Israeli helicopter strikes.

A funeral of one of the soldiers killed in Monday's suicide bombing
Two Israeli soldiers killed in Monday's suicide bombing are laid to rest

Senior Palestinians were quick to warn that Israel's actions were pushing the region towards disaster.

"These reinforcements, tanks and military units are pushing the fragile situation to the edge of explosion," Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said.

Israel government spokesman Avi Pazner says what happens next depends on Yasser Arafat.

"This is a warning. This is a deterrence measure to try and convince Arafat to get his people to stop this terrorism campaign."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Frank Gardener
"Israel's military machine appears to be poised for action"
Senior Israeli foreign ministry official, Oded Eran
"All this deployment is a deterrent and nothing more"
Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi
"They have imposed on us a most brutal state of siege"
Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres
discusses the peace protest and the condemned policy of state assasintaion
See also:

17 Jul 01 | Middle East
Israel hits back after suicide bombing
13 Jul 01 | Middle East
Hamas vows revenge for 'assassination'
09 Jul 01 | Middle East
Suicide bomber dies in Gaza blast
17 Jul 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Mideast truce crumbling
18 Jul 01 | Middle East
School trains suicide bombers
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