TULKARM, West Bank, July 13 (Reuters) - Israeli troops raided a major West Bank city on Wednesday, shooting dead a Palestinian policeman in an offensive against militants who claimed a deadly suicide bombing in central Israel.
The bombing on Tuesday, which killed two teenage girls and a woman outside a shopping mall in the coastal city of Netanya, and Israel's military response could complicate a planned Gaza pullout due to begin in mid-August.
Ahead of next week's march by rightist opponents of the withdrawal plan, Israel's army sealed off Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, witnesses said.
Troops prevented non-residents from entering the settlements from Israel in what a security source said was likely to be a temporary measure during three days of demonstrations set to begin on Monday. The army declined immediate comment.
The first suicide attack in the Jewish state in five months drew swift condemnation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who called it "idiotic".
Islamic Jihad, which has distanced itself from the truce Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared in February, claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was a response to previous Israeli raids to arrest militants.
Returning to a city it had handed over to Palestinian security control four months ago, the Israeli army swept into Tulkarm before dawn in an offensive it said would last several days.
Troops fired at a Palestinian security post, killing a policeman in what witnesses called an unprovoked attack.
Brigadier-General Yair Golan, the commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, told Israel Radio the Palestinian police had fired at the soldiers, who then shot back.
"We have launched a pinpointed raid against Islamic Jihad infrastructure that has been taking advantage of Tulkarm's handover to Palestinian security control to plot and carry out attacks," Lieutenant-Colonel Erez Winner, an Israeli operations officer in the West Bank, told Reuters.
Soldiers detained five Islamic Jihad militants in Tulkarm and uncovered a weapons workshop, Israeli military officials said. Witnesses said 20 Israeli army vehicles had entered the city.
"VIOLATION OF AGREEMENTS"
Deputy Palestinian Prime Minister Nabil Shaath condemned the Israeli military action as "a new violation of all agreements".
During the raid, Israel clamped a closure on the Palestinian territories, barring any Palestinian entry into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza, the army said, adding that the measure would remain in effect "until a renewed security assessment is made".
The Netanya bombing was the first by Palestinian militants in Israel since five Israelis were killed on Feb. 25 in a blast outside a Tel Aviv nightclub.
In a farewell video obtained by Reuters, black-clad bomber Ahmed Abu Khalil, an 18-year-old student from the Tulkarm area village of Attil, said: "We reiterate our commitment to calm, but we have to retaliate for Israeli violations."
Despite the violence, Western countries hope Israel's plan to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank may lead to a renewal of peace talks under a U.S.-backed "road map".
Palestinians fear the withdrawal plan will give them tiny, impoverished Gaza, while Israel strengthens its hold on much bigger West Bank settlements.
Sharon has said there can be no talks on Palestinian statehood following the pullout until Abbas dismantles militant groups under the terms of the road map. Abbas has said he wants to co-opt the gunmen into the Palestinian security forces to avoid civil strife.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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