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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) – Israeli troops and tanks boosted their presence around Palestinian towns on Wednesday, a muscle-flexing Israeli message to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to stop more than nine months of violence.

Defiant Palestinians condemned the move, warning it would worsen the crisis, marked in recent days by a significant increase in violence on both sides.

Israeli officials denied the reinforcements were part of a plan to launch a major assault or reoccupy land under Palestinian control.

“Contrary to the reports, we don’t intend to re-conquer, so to speak, the territories,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in London, where he arrived for talks with British leaders.

Additional soldiers arrived at existing West Bank checkpoints Wednesday. Others took up positions along roads, stopping and searching cars. No figures were available on the size of the buildup, made public late Tuesday by Israeli military sources.

Many Palestinians traveling from Bethlehem to Jerusalem bypassed the crowded checkpoint, hiking around the position on dirt roads.

Brig. Gen. Faiz Arafat, a Palestinian commander in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, said there were more Israeli troops nearby than usual, but noted the presence had always been strong.

“I think it is only a message to scare us and put us in a difficult psychological state,” he said.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, chief of staff of the Israeli military, said the moves were preventative. “We don’t want to reach an escalation, we don’t want to reach a deterioration,” he said at a military graduation ceremony. “We are taking all the necessary steps in order not to get into that situation.”

Near Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in a disputed part of Jerusalem, military vehicles pulled up behind concrete barriers on the hillside facing the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla. Palestinians fired two mortar shells in the Gilo area on Tuesday, the first time mortars have been fired in the West Bank.

Avi Pazner, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the troop movements were a message to (Yasser) Arafat “that he has to issue a clear order to his people … to stop his terror campaign.”

Returning to Gaza after talks in Egypt, Arafat denounced the buildup. “We are facing a very dangerous military escalation in addition to the crimes committed by settlers and the continuing crimes like assassination, destruction, bombardment and siege,” he said.

Palestinian Cabinet secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said Palestinians “will defend themselves against the Israeli aggression – and we will not be terrorized by the additional Israeli tanks or gunships.”

Israel’s security Cabinet met Wednesday to discuss measures to deal with Palestinian violence, a day after Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a cinderblock shed in Bethlehem, killing four men, including Omar Saadeh, a local Hamas military wing leader, and Taha Aruj, another member of the militant group sought by Israel. The Israelis said they were planning a major terror attack.

Relatives of Saadeh and masked comrades clutching AK-47 assault rifles kissed the bodies wrapped in green Hamas flags, then carried them through Bethlehem streets on stretchers. A few thousand mourners followed, firing in the air, chanting anti-Israel slogans and shouting “Revenge!” Israeli flags were set ablaze in the town, which observed a general strike.

Nasser Ahmed, 36, said Israel alone is escalating the conflict. “These four martyrs are my neighbors and friends and Israel caused me to lose them,” he said.

Violence during the past few days, including a suicide bombing that killed two Israelis and the Israeli helicopter strike, has left last month’s U.S.-sponsored cease-fire in tatters. Fighting since September has killed 521 people on the Palestinian side and 128 on the Israeli side.

The security Cabinet, a forum of 16 senior ministers, agreed on ways to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel from the West Bank, including additional monitoring, patrols and dogs and possibly electronic sensors, said Sharon aide Ranaan Gissin.

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