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Israeli tanks move into Hebron

Israeli tanks moved into the West Bank town of Hebron from three directions early today, destroying Palestinian police posts during a fierce exchange of fire, witnesses said.

Also today, Israeli police found the bodies of two Palestinians in a valley near a Jerusalem neighborhood. Investigators said they were killed when a bomb they were putting together for a terror attack exploded prematurely. Their names were not given.

The Israeli tanks destroyed police posts run by Force 17, an elite unit, in Hebron. Palestinian officials said nine people were wounded in the operation.

The military said soldiers returned Palestinian fire from several locations in Hebron, the only West bank town divided into Israeli and Palestinian zones. Israeli soldiers control the center of the city, where about 450 Jewish settlers live in three enclaves.

On Thursday, Israeli tanks moved briefly into the Palestinian part of Hebron after two Jewish settlers were shot and killed. Witnesses said today's operation was much larger. It followed repeated exchanges of fire between Palestinian neighborhoods and Israeli army positions.

Incursions by Israeli forces into Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were frequent before a U.S.-sponsored cease-fire went into effect last month. However, the truce never fully took hold, and the violence has been escalating again.

On Sunday, Israel's Cabinet approved a plan to build new communities near the Gaza Strip on territory that the previous government had considered giving to the Palestinians in a land-swap deal. The decision drew criticism from Israeli opposition figures and environmental groups.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet approved the proposal to develop Israeli communities in Halutza Sands, a desert region adjoining the southeast corner of the Gaza Strip, according to Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.

While the land is Israeli territory, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had proposed that Halutza Sands be given to the Palestinians in exchange for Israel annexing Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, according to Israeli media reports at the time.

Those negotiations collapsed amid the nearly 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, and the Halutza Sands proposal is no longer on the table.

However, Mossi Raz, a member of the dovish Meretz Party, criticized the government decision, saying it could complicate future negotiations.

"I think the government is tying its own hands," Raz said. "Even if a peace agreement doesn't happen today, what will happen in 10 years?"

Also, environmental groups oppose development of the area, which includes a national park.

There was no immediate word on when building might begin, or how large the proposed communities would be.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group was seized from the street by men believed to be Israeli undercover agents, according to Palestinian security sources.

Mahmoud Hamdan, 42, was grabbed by men disguised as street vendors, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Israeli military sources confirmed that the army was responsible, and claimed that Hamdan was a bombmaker for the Islamic Jihad.

Also Sunday, an Israeli human rights group accused Israeli police in a West Bank settlement of torturing Palestinian teenagers arrested for alleged stone throwing.

Ten youths, aged 14 to 17, held at the Gush Etzion police station said they were beaten and left in painful positions for prolonged periods of time, the Betselem human rights group said.