Israeli military forces killed 10 Palestinians on Wednesday in the West Bank, the highest single-day death toll there in 18 months, and Israeli officials warned that troops would continue attacks against Palestinians while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moves ahead with proposals to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
"We have to intensify our activities. That's the instruction that the prime minister gave to the defense minister" and the military, said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "There has to be a heavy hand against terrorist infrastructure and leadership so when we disengage, they will be on the run and we will walk out."
Palestinian medical officials identified the dead as an 11-year-old girl struck in the head by a bullet, six militants and three Palestinian security officials. A spokeswoman for the Israeli military said troops killed nine militants. She said she had no information on the death of the child.
Troops identified by the Israeli news media as navy commandos attacked a house in Nablus, in the northern West Bank, in a predawn raid that killed five gunmen and Maram Nahleh, 11, who was inside her house about 15 feet from the garden where the shooting erupted, according to Palestinian hospital officials and a witness from the neighborhood.
Palestinian security officials said four of the gunmen were members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement, and the fifth was from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Syrian-based group that has been active throughout the four-year-old Palestinian uprising.
As tanks and armored vehicles swarmed through Nablus after the early morning attack, thousands of residents poured into the streets, pelting the Israelis with rocks and gasoline bombs, according to witnesses and the Israeli military spokeswoman.
"This is a big crime that cannot be forgiven and is part of Israeli determination to escalate aggression," Arafat told reporters at his Ramallah headquarters.
Sharon's plans to remove all settlements from the Gaza Strip and four small, isolated settlements from the West Bank have provoked increasingly vocal protests from settlement organizations and death threats against him from Jewish extremists, according to Israeli officials. Twice this year, members of Sharon's Likud Party have voted against initiatives aimed at advancing the plan.
Although Sharon's government has taken only the most preliminary bureaucratic steps toward removing Jewish settlers, the Israeli military has escalated attacks against Palestinians in Gaza. Until Wednesday, Israeli forces had conducted continual, smaller-scale operations in the West Bank, but the raid in Nablus as well as another in Jenin, farther north, resulted in the bloodiest day there since the spring of last year.
Early Wednesday afternoon, Israeli troops disguised as Palestinians burst into an auto repair shop in downtown Jenin, killing one gunman, a Palestinian police officer and two civilians, witnesses told the Reuters news agency. The Israeli military spokeswoman said all the victims were armed and that troops arrested one unarmed man.
The bloodshed came as Jewish settler organizations amplified their protests against evacuating settlements. On Tuesday, Israel's security cabinet approved up to $670 million to compensate settlers who are forced to leave, and families who leave voluntarily could receive more than $300,000 in government buyouts, Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday. Israel's parliament must approve the allocations, however, before money can be handed out.
"Sharon is trying to put pressure on residents of our community even though the plan has not been approved," said Josh Hasten, spokesman for the Yesha Council, Israel's main settler organization, which opposes the withdrawal plan. "We're confident the vast majority of our residents are not going to take compensation of any form: They can't be bought," he said.
Israeli police said this week that they were investigating possible death threats made against Sharon because of his settlement withdrawal plan. A radical rabbi declared on Israel's Channel 2 television Tuesday night that was he prepared to conduct a ceremony placing a death curse on Sharon.
"He's not afraid about his own personal safety," said Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, but about "this incitement and spreading of hatred that could lead to the worst of all possible worlds, a civil war, which Israel cannot afford."
Hasten described publicity surrounding the death threats as "political exaggeration" designed to sidetrack arguments against the disengagement plan and win sympathy for Sharon here and in the United States.
Correspondent John Ward Anderson contributed to this report.