JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli tanks and troops swept into two West Bank villages Wednesday, removing residents from their homes in a hunt for suspected militants, as the Palestinians protested to Secretary of State Colin Powell over the continuing Israeli offensive.
Hours after Powell ended his 10-mission to the region, Israel Radio reported that about 30 Israeli tanks pulled out of the Jenin refugee camp - scene of the toughest fighting of Israel's West Bank campaign. Still, Israeli soldiers enforced a curfew on the heavily damaged camp.
Though he failed to reach a cease-fire, Powell said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had given him a timetable to withdraw from West Bank towns within a week. An angry Yasser Arafat, however, complained to Powell during talks earlier Wednesday in Ramallah that Israel was reoccupying towns it had previously left.
"This means that they are continuing their aggression against the Palestinian people," Arafat told reporters in a darkened hallway of his headquarters after the meeting.
He appealed for international pressure on Israel to end his own imprisonment in his Ramallah office. "Do you think this will not reflect in the whole stability and peace in the Middle East?" he said, suggesting an easing of tension was unlikely as long as he is confined.
Ending his weeklong mission, Powell said that although the Israeli pullback "wasn't as quickly as we would have liked, it is under way."
Israeli Radio said about 30 tanks evacuated the Jenin refugee camp, parts of which were reduced to rubble last week. Still, some armored vehicles remained, and soldiers with loudspeakers told residents the curfew was still in place.
Red Cross teams joined the Israeli military in searching for bodies earlier in the day in Jenin camp, where Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen battled for days. Israel and the Palestinians have bitterly disputed the number of dead in the camp - with the former estimating only a few dozen Palestinians killed and the latter saying hundreds.
Israel said it allowed humanitarian groups to bring food and medicine into the camp and were working to restore water and electricity.
In a speech Wednesday at Virginia Military Institute, Bush said Powell made progress, but added much more remains to be done. "The time is now for all to make the choice for peace," the president said.
A senior Sharon aide, Dore Gold, said Powell "achieved a great deal" by helping to restore peace on the Israel-Lebanon border after three weeks of exchanges of fire. Gold accused Arafat of refusing to agree to "a meaningful cease-fire" or to U.S. compromise proposals.
Palestinians dismissed the Powell trip as unproductive.
"It is clear that the Americans have legitimized the aggressive style of the Israeli government," said Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian security chief in Gaza.
Dahlan called Arafat's meeting with Powell fruitless. The Americans "could not even force Israel to move their tanks from in front of Arafat's office."
In the northern West Bank, the army conducted searches and arrested suspects in the villages of Silat a-Hartia, northwest of Jenin, and Balaa, east of Tulkarem, a spokesman said.
The army had been in both villages several times during the West Bank operation that began March 29 to seek out and arrest Palestinians it holds responsible for violence against Israel.
Overnight, Israeli forces sealed off the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiyah in Jerusalem, removing residents and searching their homes for militant suspects. Police spokesman Gil Kleiman said two men were detained before the operation ended early Wednesday.
Residents said the military brought bulldozers into the village. Men were taken to a gas station and women and children to a school. Police imposed a nearly 18-hour curfew - rarely done inside Jerusalem's city limits - during which families were barred from returning to their homes. Many slept in their cars.
In Nablus, military authorities released some of the Palestinians detained in their sweep after questioning, including Associated Press reporter Mohammed Daraghmeh.
After Daragmeh's release late Tuesday night, soldiers told him he had to walk home, six miles away, even though the city is under a strict curfew. Gunfire broke out near him at one point, and later, soldiers posted in the city ordered him to strip to his underwear to check for weapons.
During their meeting, Powell asked Arafat to comply with Israel's request to hand over wanted suspects holed up with him in his Ramallah headquarters and to facilitate the surrender of gunmen who took refuge in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Palestinian officials said.
But Arafat was outraged at the continued Israeli siege of the holy site, calling it "shameful" and asking: "Who can accept this against these very holy sacred places?"
Following Powell's mission, efforts appeared to be aimed at starting an international peace conference, probably in June, while senior U.S. officials continued working in the region.
Sharon has eased objections to Arafat's participation, saying it was not up to him to decide who would represent the other parties.
But the Palestinians were skeptical.
"The next steps are clear. We have all the right to defend ourselves. And now the Arab countries have to understand that they carry no weight with the Americans, who consider Sharon as the only leader in the region," said Dahlan, the security chief.
On Tuesday, Israeli forces entered three Palestinian villages near Jerusalem - Abu Dis, Izzariyeh and Sawahra As-Sharkiyeh - declared a curfew and searched for suspects, acting on intelligence of a planned attack.
Since the fighting began 18 months ago, 1,508 Palestinians and 468 Israelis have been confirmed killed, but the Palestinian death toll from fighting this week, mainly in the Jenin refugee camp, was still unclear.
In Gaza, the militant Hamas group issued an appeal to Muslims around the world to donate money, listing the prices of bullets, rifles and explosives. A posting on the Hamas Internet Web site said the group is manufacturing rockets and other weapons and said that Hamas was responsible for 65 percent of Israeli deaths during 18 months of fighting.
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