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Verbal Volley From Israeli Military Official

Israel's army chief of staff called for a decisive victory over the Palestinians to ensure that terror is not rewarded - saying the Palestinians posed a "cancer-like" threat that needs to be "fought to the bitter end."

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon's comments to a rabbinical assembly late Sunday stirred angry criticism by left-wing politicians who said he overstepped his bounds as a military officer.

In the West Bank early Monday, Israeli tanks backed by helicopters searched for militants in the Jenin refugee camp. Exchanges of fire erupted between gunmen and soldiers but there were no immediate reports of injuries.

Camp resident Mohammed Damag, 45, said 20 Israeli troops entered his house at about 4 a.m. and confined all the residents to one room, taking over the roof as a lookout post.

Also on the West Bank, a Palestinian militant leader began a hunger strike in the Jericho jail where he had been held since May, under U.S. and British monitoring. A Palestinian official says Ahmed Sa'adat, whose brother was killed by Israeli troops in a raid last week, is protesting his continued detention despite a Palestinian High Court ruling that he should be freed.

Sa'adat is one of several Palestinian militant leaders wanted by Israel who had been holed up with Arafat inside Arafat's headquarters during the many weeks-long siege of the complex by Israeli troops last spring.

Arafat's Palestinian Authority has welcomed the High Court decision favoring Sa'adat's release but has said it cannot be implemented, for fear of Israeli reprisals.

In the Gaza Strip Monday, two mortar shells fell in Jewish settlements, causing no injuries. On Friday, Israeli soldiers foiled an attempted attack by militants on a settlement in Gaza.

The new violence in Gaza jeopardized a fragile agreement under which Israel is to pull back troops from Palestinian areas, in exchange for Palestinian efforts to restore security.

However, the chief negotiators from both sides, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razek Yehiyeh, defended the deal against internal criticism, and said they would proceed.

Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a two-year-old cycle of attacks and counterattacks that began when U.S.-sponsored peace talks broke down two years ago.

Yaalon, the army chief, said in his speech to the rabbinical assembly that Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 was interpreted by Arabs as proof that Israel can be forced into concessions through attacks on civilians.

He said the Palestinians began their latest uprising - or intifada - two years ago because they sensed the dispute was headed toward a political resolution and did not want to accept a permanent Jewish presence in the Middle East.

"It is imperative that we win this conflict in such a way that the Palestinian side will burn into its consciousness that there is no chance of achieving goals by means of terror," Yaalon was quoted as saying by the Yediot Ahronot daily.

The army chief said the dangers of the conflict with the Palestinians were much graver than the threat posed by Iraq. "The Palestinian threat harbors cancer-like attributes that have to be severed and fought to the bitter end," he said.

Other newspapers also published parts of Yaalon's speech.

Yossi Beilin, a key player in previous peace accords, urged Yaalon to honor his admonition to his own troops, when he told them recently not to make political statements.

"The withdrawal from Lebanon and the peace process with the Palestinians were the most important things that Israel has done to save itself from a political, security and demographic disaster. If the chief of staff wants to argue with this, it is his full right as a civilian, but not as someone in uniform," Beilin said.

Ben-Eliezer said the security agreement reached last week with the Palestinians was still in effect. According to the understanding, Israeli troops withdrew from the West Bank town of Bethlehem and were slated to do the same in parts of the Gaza Strip, in exchange for Palestinian efforts to prevent attacks on Israelis.

"The process is going on," Ben-Eliezer told Israel Army Radio. "I'm very satisfied with what is happening in Bethlehem. I'm also satisfied with the efforts being made in the Gaza Strip."

Ben-Eliezer said in a separate interview with Israel Radio that the Palestinian security forces aren't having much success in enforcing the agreement since the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have vowed to continue attacks.

Palestinian officials said Sunday that the agreement was in trouble since Israel was refusing to transfer security to Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip.

The Gaza and Bethlehem troop withdrawals were meant to be test cases for further Israeli pullouts from West Bank areas re-occupied as a response to suicide bombings in Israel.

In the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Israeli troops demolished the home of a militant suspected of involvement in attacks in Israel that killed eight people, the army said. Soldiers told 11 people who lived in the two-story building where Mansour Eshram lived to evacuate it before placing explosives in the home and detonating them early Monday, the witnesses said.

The army has renewed the practice in recent weeks of demolishing homes where suicide bombers or militants lived in an effort to deter other militants from carrying out attacks.

The Supreme Court began hearings Monday to decide if relatives of Palestinian terror suspects can be expelled to the Gaza Strip. The military hopes to expel three relatives of militants by proving that they knew about the attacks and did nothing to stop them or were actually involved in preparing the attacks.

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