Israeli Troops Leave Most West Bank Cities

JENIN, West Bank?With Israeli forces gone from most Palestinian cities in the West Bank, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared Sunday that Israel has completed the latest stage of its “war on terrorism” and will turn to new tactics as it presses the campaign.

Israel withdrew troops from Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, and most of Ramallah, the Palestinian headquarters in the territory. But soldiers remained at two sensitive and volatile sites?Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where armed Palestinians are holed up inside.

The Israeli army also said its forces remain in several villages near Jenin, though Israeli forces left Jenin city and the neighboring refugee camp Friday, the scene of the heaviest fighting in three weeks of Israeli incursions aimed in the West Bank.

Sharon called the operation?which Israel says has been aimed at militant groups held responsible for attacks that have killed some 470 Israelis in 19 months of fighting?a success.

“I believe we have achieved very notable accomplishments,” Sharon said. “However, the war against terrorism continues and will continue. But now it will employ a different method.”

Sharon gave no details, but he has spoken previously about creating a buffer zone that would make it more difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank to reach Israeli cities and towns. Israel already has an extensive network of checkpoints that keeps most Palestinians out.

The withdrawal from Nablus and Ramallah was a significant scaling back of the Israeli campaign. However, Palestinians are demanding a complete Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank before they will consider a cease-fire deal.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who tried but failed to negotiate a truce during a Mideast visit last week, said Israel should loosen its confinement of Arafat to give him a better chance of exercising his authority.

“I think the more access he is given will show whether or not he can control forces or bring this security situation under control,” Powell said in Washington on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Israel says it will maintain its siege of Arafat’s headquarters until he surrenders four men wanted for the killing last October of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi and the man accused of arranging a weapons shipment to militant groups.

Arafat’s aides have said the suspects are in custody in the compound and will be tried by the Palestinian Authority.

Powell said the United States and other countries were trying to bridge the differences between Israel and Palestinians over the suspects.

He also said he was pleased that Israel’s withdrawal of forces from Nablus and Jenin and sections of Ramallah “seems to be well under way” but would like to see it continue “until there is no more question about it.”

“We are moving in a good direction right now but it is not yet over,” Powell said.

With Israel’s West Bank offensive coming under international criticism, Sharon announced last week that Israeli troops would be out of all Palestinian population centers by now, except for Arafat’s compound and the Bethlehem church.

The army’s withdrawal from Nablus was largely completed before dawn Sunday, and some residents rushed to check apartments that had been taken over by Israeli soldiers in recent weeks.

The army spokesman said troops would remain on the outskirts of the cities, and that further incursions were possible if Palestinian militants carried out more attacks against Israelis.