Israel recaptured Tulkarm early Wednesday, after a suicide bomber from that West Bank town killed four Israelis and injured dozens when he blew himself up at a pedestrian crossing in the nearby Israeli coastal city of Netanya.
One armed Palestinian was killed and another wounded as a large army force entered the autonomous Palestinian town before dawn in search of those behind the suicide bombing.
Israel, meanwhile, closed off the Gaza Strip to all Israelis except residents of settlements until the end of its upcoming pullout from the area.
Premier Ariel Sharon signed the closure order for both the Gaza Strip and the area in the northern West Bank from which Israel plans to withdraw.
He followed recommendations by the Israeli army, which feared that fanatic Israelis opposed to the withdrawal planned to flock to the Strip to resist it.
Large numbers of police and soldiers arrived at crossing points into the Gaza Strip used by settlers to reach their homes. The order led to traffic jams on the main road leading to the Gush Katif settlement block.
The entire Gaza Strip and its immediate vicinity were declared a closed military zone.
Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said Wednesday that the evacuation of the more than 7,500 settlers from Gaza would start as scheduled in mid-August despite Tuesday evening’s suicide bombing.
Sporadic protests throughout Israel, opposing the closure, attempted to halt traffic at major intersections and arteries, but were foiled by police preparedness.
Calling the pullout a “historic move” for Israel, he said Israel would not allow the Islamic Jihad, which took responsibility for the attack, to wreck it.
Sharon said he ordered the Israeli army and Shin Bet intelligence service to step up operations against the Jihad.
Part of that order was the take-over of Tulkarm.
The Israeli troops imposed a curfew over the town, located less than 15 kilometres east of Netanya, and began widespread searches, as snipers took up positions on several high rises.
An Israeli army spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said two armed men opened fire when the army advanced into Tulkarm. The soldiers returned fire and shot both. Palestinians said one, a member of the security forces, was killed, the other injured. Two Israeli soldiers were also injured.
The force arrested 5 suspected militants in Tulkarm believed to be linked to the suicide bombing in Netanya.
Another three, including the father of the 18-year-old suicide bomber, were arrested in the nearby village of Atil, the Tulkarm governorate said.
Troops also blew up two stores which the soldiers said hid weapons and explosives, the governor said.
Israel had transferred security control of Tulkarm back to the PA almost four months ago, along with Jericho and as part of the ceasefire which the sides declared in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on February 8.
But Israeli officials said that since then, the town had become a refuge for Islamic Jihad members from nearby villages still under Israeli control and that Israel would act with full force against the terrorist infrastructure in the town.
And in another sign of growing lawlessness as the Israeli pullout – now one month away – nears, Palestinian gunmen Wednesday evening released an Austrian and a British national abducted at gunpoint the night before in Gaza in an apparent effort to force the Palestinian Authority (PA) to release relatives held for murder from a PA jail.
The two men, engineers working for the Palestinian Water Authority in the water sector on development cooperation were held captive by a Palestinian family in the central Gaza Strip refugee of el-Bureij.
Officials from both governments were dispatched to Gaza and coordinated with Palestinian Authority officials in arranging the release of the men, British and Austrian officials told Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
The Palestinian interior ministry said the two foreigners disappeared Tuesday night “under mysterious circumstances”. Interior Minister Nasser Yousef gave instructions to search for them, it said.
Both men were escorted to safety in Jerusalem Wednesday evening.
See our last post on the West Bank.