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Monday, 27 May, 2002, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Israel thrusts into Bethlehem
Israeli troops outside Manger Square, Bethlehem, March, 2002
Israel says militants are sheltering in Bethlehem
The Israeli army has swept into the Palestinian town of Bethlehem and surrounding areas for the second time in two days.

Dozens of Palestinians have been seized, including the local head of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Ahmed Moghrabi, during house-to-house searches in the Dheisheh refugee camp close to Bethlehem.

The army has sealed off the town and imposed a curfew to conduct their operation, which Israel said was to "hit the infrastructures of terrorism and preserve the gains of Operation Defensive Wall", its massive offensive through the West Bank in April.

Israeli forces continue to surround Tulkarm and Qalqilya, which have also been subject to incursions during the past few days, and a military source quoted by AFP said troops had gone back into Qalqilya on Monday.

Palestinians also reported raids overnight in Hebron and surrounding villages, where dozens of people were said to have been arrested.

The latest incursions came as Israel's chief of staff warned that it might mount more intensive raids if suicide bombings did not stop.

On Monday, Israeli police defused a 10-kilo (22 pound) bomb found hidden in a plastic bag outside an apartment in the Ramat Eshkol neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

Church sealed off

In Bethlehem, armoured vehicles drove into Manger Square early on Monday and sealed off the area, the army said.

A military spokesman said the action was to ensure Palestinian militants did not flee to the Church of the Nativity, which is situated in the square.

Aftermath of raid on Bethlehem Islamic Jihad leader Muhammad Shehadeh's house
A Jihad leader's house was overturned on Sunday
As well as the arrest of 28-year-old Mr Moghrabi, the army also reportedly seized the sister of a female Palestinian suicide bomber, Ayad al-Ahras, who killed herself and two Israelis at a Jerusalem supermarket on 29 March.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is an armed offshoot of Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement, and has been at the forefront of attacks against Israel during the 20-month Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation.

Troops had entered Bethlehem on Sunday, but failed to capture local Islamic Jihad leader Muhammad Shehadeh, whose house was left wrecked.

An Israeli raid into Bethlehem in early March led to a five-week stand-off with Palestinian militants who had sought refuge in the church along with scores of civilians and clergy.

Israel warning

Israel's Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz warned on Sunday that the Palestinian militants had started regrouping in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin after Israel's last big offensive.

Shaul Mofaz, Israeli chief of staff

It's possible that the army will be forced to launch deeper operations if those we are currently carrying out are not effective

He indicated the army might step up its assaults if the militants continued staging attacks.

"It's possible that the army will be forced to launch deeper operations if those we are currently carrying out are not effective," said General Mofaz.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said security forces were "preventing 90% of planned attacks, capturing two suicide bombers every day before they can strike".

Security reforms

As Israel continued its operations, Palestinian officials have confirmed that Palestinian leader Mr Arafat will ratify sweeping changes to his security forces this week.

Palestinian police
The Palestinian security forces "will be restructured"
A dozen competing branches will reportedly be slimmed down to four departments, comprising internal and external security services, a civilian police force and a national security force.

They will all be unified under the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which Mr Arafat controls.

The Palestinian leader has come under intense pressure from Israel and the United States to reform the security structure and the Palestinian Authority.

But on Sunday Mr Arafat said continued Israeli raids could delay the reform process, and demanded Israel "finish quickly the siege of all our cities and towns in the West Bank and Gaza" to facilitate preparations for the voting.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Claire Marshall
"Bethlehem is now once again a closed military area"

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26 May 02 | Middle East
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