HEBRON, West Bank — Dozens of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles entered the West Bank city of Hebron early today, witnesses said.
The incursion came from the north, south and west, and was accompanied by attack helicopters, firing machine guns from the air.
One Palestinian, a member of one the security forces, was killed and at least 15 people were wounded by Israeli gunfire, mostly from the helicopters, Palestinians said.
Israeli military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that a military operation was under way but would give no further details. Israel Radio said the object of the incursion was to arrest militants, not to occupy the city, but residents said it was the largest military operation in Hebron in months.
It was not clear if the incursion marked a full invasion of the city, the only main West Bank population center that escaped Israel's large-scale military push that began March 29. Israeli troops also bypassed the desert oasis town of Jericho during their sweep.
Moving in force in response to a series of deadly Palestinian suicide bombing attacks, Israeli troops took control of the other main cities and fought house-to-house battles in the Jenin refugee camp and the old city of Nablus. The fighting ended two weeks ago, and Israeli forces withdrew from most of the towns.
In today's incursion, Israeli troops moved about 1 1/2 miles into Hebron and appeared to be concentrating on two specific areas, the witnesses said, indicating that the object was to make arrests. However, they said, it was the largest Israeli military move on the town in months.
On Thursday, about 20 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles entered Hebron briefly to arrest suspected militants. In that operation, Ahmed Bashir, a member of the Force 17, an elite security unit, was killed.
Hebron is a source of constant tension. The city is divided into Israeli and Palestinian-controlled zones, with Israeli forces guarding three enclaves in the center of the city, where about 450 Israeli settlers live.
The incursion came as Israel's West Bank push, its largest operation in two decades, appeared to be ending. Israeli forces had withdrawn from Palestinian towns, except Bethlehem, where a standoff at the Church of the Nativity continued, and Ramallah, where Israeli troops continued to lay siege to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's office.
However, on Sunday, Israel and the Palestinians accepted an American compromise plan aimed at ending Israel's blockade of Arafat's office, and negotiations continued toward resolving the deadlock in Bethlehem.