NABLUS, West Bank (AP) – Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian gunmen in arrest raids in the West Bank early Thursday, pressing on with a major offensive against suspected militants and casting a shadow over municipal elections in dozens of Palestinian villages.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, reaffirmed his support for the U.S.-backed «road map» peace plan, trying to dispel speculation that he is formulating an alternative. Sharon spoke a day after confidants suggested that Israel could unilaterally withdraw from some parts of the West Bank and annex others. The road map calls for a negotiated Mideast peace deal.
"Yesterday, there were rumors that Israel is considering other plans," Sharon told an economic conference. "Israel is not considering other plans. There is only one plan, and that is the road map."
In the West Bank, local elections were held Thursday in 82 towns and villages, with a total population of 376,000. Voting began at 7 a.m. (0400 gmt) and polls were to close at 10 p.m. (1900 gmt).
Despite Israel”s campaign, the Islamic militant group Hamas was expected to make a strong showing in Thursday”s vote, the third of four rounds of municipal elections. Israel objects to the group”s participation in elections as long as it remains armed, and many of the Israeli attacks this week have been against Hamas targets.
Turnout was brisk in Tamoun, a village east of Nablus where militants appeared poised to make a strong showing. Dozens of activists holding flags of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group rallied outside polling stations. Uniformed Palestinian police holding handguns and assault rifles stood on guard.
"I came here to vote for Hamas. I want Hamas to win because they believe in God and follow the teachings of the Quran," said Hamda al-Youssef, a frail 73-year-old man who said he was voting for the first time in his life.
Israel Radio said the army had permitted Palestinian police to carry weapons during the vote, and allowed international observers to monitor the election.
Israel launched the offensive last weekend in response to a series of Hamas rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip into southern Israeli towns. It has pushed forward with its series of air strikes and arrest raids, despite pledges by Hamas and other militant groups to stop the rocket fire.
Early Thursday, Israeli soldiers entered the West Bank town of Jenin and the nearby town of Burqin to arrest suspected militants.
Soldiers in Burqin shot and killed two armed men, the targets of the arrest raid, who appeared about to fire on the force, the army said.
Soldiers later found assault rifles and ammunition clips on their bodies, the army said. Palestinians identified the men as Islamic Jihad militants Nidal Khlouf, 32, and Samer Shalaby, 24.
In Jenin, a militant fired at soldiers, who returned fire and killed him, the army said. Palestinians identified the man as Samer Asady, 30, an Al Aqsa Martyrs” Brigades militant.
The leader of Al Aqsa in Jenin, Zakariya Zubeydi, said his group would no longer abide by an informal truce that had largely held since February. "The Israelis have not upheld their part of the cease-fire agreement," he said. "We will fight back hard and there will be no limits to our responses from now on. We need to protect our people."
On Wednesday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Cairo to enlist Egypt”s help in trying to end the crisis.
Palestinian officials said Abbas would meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on Oct. 20. A meeting between Sharon and Abbas, tentatively set for Sunday, was postponed, apparently because of the flare-up. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel was trying to teach the militants it would not tolerate attacks from Gaza following its pullout. "It needs to be clear to them that we mean every word we say," Mofaz said. "They need to know the rules of the game have changed," he told Channel Two TV.
Early Thursday, Gaza militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli force inside Israel, the army said. No one was injured.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that U.S. officials had been in contact with both sides about their responsibilities in stopping the violence.
"On the Palestinian side that responsibility is to act to stop any terrorism, to act to dismantle terrorist networks. On the Israeli side … they need to take steps to ease the daily plight of the Palestinian people, as well as to take into account the effect of their actions upon what all share as the ultimate goal of bringing peace and stability to the region," he said.