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Friday, 5 July, 2002, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Israel 'winning battle with militants'
The Israeli army in Bethlehem
Israelis are likely to stay in Palestinian areas 'for months'
Israeli officials have said that nearly all of Israel's most-wanted Palestinian militants in the West Bank had been arrested or killed.

The wreckage of an explosion in which a Palestinian militant was killed
Gaza militant leader Jihad al-Omarayn was killed this week - allegedly by Israel
Breaking up Palestinian militant networks is the main stated aim of the major Israeli incursions into the West Bank.

At the same time, the outgoing Israeli Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz, has said that Israeli forces were likely to remain for months "at least", in the seven West Bank cities they have re-occupied.

Lieutenant General Mofaz, who is ending his four-year term as head of the army, has been an outspoken figure who was criticised for getting involved in politics.

'Major leaders gone'

A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister told BBC News Online that the major leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank were dead or in Israeli custody.

Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz
Mofaz has been criticised for getting involved in politics
"We are talking about the leaders, the dispatchers of the suicide bombers, the planners. Most of these have been arrested or killed," Raanan Gissin said.

"That does not mean that the motivation to carry these attacks out is gone, it just means that the ability to launch attacks, to technically assemble the explosives is much reduced."

Mr Gissin said that Israel was accomplishing what it could not during its massive incursion in the West Bank in March and April.

However, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in Gaza, has said Israel had arrested some Hamas activists, but had not broken up its highest ranks.

"They will never succeed in halting the martyrs' operations," Mr Rantisi said.

'Targeted killings'

As well as the incursions, Israel's assassination policy - referred to as "targeted killings" by Israeli officials - has been the main tool against the militants.

As long as we don't get Arafat out of here, terror will continue, and the situation will escalate

Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz
This policy has been criticised by human rights groups as extra-judicial killings.

The killing of militants has also contributed to a cycle of violence in which Palestinian attacks have appeared to be direct responses to Israeli killings, and vice-versa.

Up to Thursday more than 700,000 Palestinians in seven of the West Bank's main eight cities were shut up in their homes, except for breaks in the curfew for three or four hours every other day.

Nablus, Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Qalqilya, Jenin and Hebron were re-occupied following two suicide bombings in Jerusalem that killed more than 30 Israelis.

During daylight, in most of the towns, Palestinians are now free to move about.

Israel is allowing more people to move through checkpoints and is planning to issue about 10,000 work permits allowing Palestinians to work just inside Israel.

'At least months'

In an interview with Yedioth Ahronot, one of the main Israeli dailies, General Mofaz said the army has "no choice but to stay a long time in the Palestinian cities".

"Months?" the interviewer asked.

"At least," General Mofaz said.

The army chief repeated his belief that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should be sent into exile, regardless of the political fallout.

"As long as Arafat is around, we will not be able to reach an agreement, and he will continue to wield terror. At first this [exiling Mr Arafat] might cause a great stir, but very quickly a new coalition will be created that will seize the leadership."

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