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Israel moves to tighten West Bank control

Reaction swift to killings of three settlers

EL-KHADER, West Bank -- The Israeli government moved swiftly yesterday to assert greater control over the West Bank a day after Palestinian gunmen killed three young Israelis and wounded several others in a pair of drive-by shootings. Officials on both sides warned of a general escalation in the conflict.

Early yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz banned private Palestinian cars from major West Bank roads and cut contacts between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian security services. Israeli forces largely sealed off the cities of Bethlehem and Hebron.

The Israeli government also suspended several Israeli-Palestinian negotiating committees that were revived earlier this month to study the release of Palestinian prisoners, the status of Palestinian fugitives, and further Israeli military withdrawals from the West Bank. Israel pledged in February to leave the territory's largest cities.

''We want to send a very clear and unequivocal message that after attacks like this, it's not business as usual," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who stressed that the Israeli steps were temporary. ''We expect them to follow through on their promises -- that these armed gangs be disarmed. Our entire ability to move forward is based on that promise."

Since the Israelis completed their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last month, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have pledged to work toward reviving the US-backed peace plan known as the roadmap, which aims at the ultimate creation of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian officials warned yesterday that momentum created by the Gaza evacuation was fading quickly. ''This response is the way toward escalation," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. ''In the past, such Israeli measures have been only the first step toward more violence."

Israeli military forces moved overnight to reestablish a network of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war. Some of those barriers had been removed after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas formalized a temporary cease-fire in March.

Yesterday, cement blocks sealed off towns along the highway running south from Jerusalem to Hebron. On this road, at a junction popular with hitchhikers, Meitat Rosenfeld-Adler, 23, Kinneret Mandel, 24, and Oz Ben Meir, 15, were shot dead Sunday afternoon. The victims, all of them Jewish settlers, were buried yesterday in Jerusalem and the West Bank. A small stone shrine draped in Israeli flags was quickly placed at the site of the shooting.

The new barriers sent taxis and public buses on long back-road treks that turned daily commutes into half-day journeys for many Palestinians.

Here in El-Khader, a hillside village of olive groves and a lovely stone church commemorating the site of St. George's family home, the barriers kept out vehicles. A line of men and women trudging with shopping bags and swaddled infants, were forced to hike more than a mile to catch the nearest public transportation.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the ruling Fatah movement, said yesterday that the attacks were a response to the killing of an Al-Aqsa fighter in Jenin two weeks ago by the Israeli military. The group has put Abbas, the head of Fatah, in an awkward position as he heads into a meeting Thursday with President Bush in Washington.

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