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Under the gun of an unspecified but pressing U.S. deadline for curtailing its West Bank incursion, Israel opened a new front in its battle to hunt down militants, prompting speculation that the action might paradoxically signal the end of the raid-and-blockade operation which began after Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi was gunned down last Wednesday.

A defiant Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, giving nothing away regarding a possible imminent pullout order, told the Knesset Wednesday that Palestinian Authority Chariman Yasser Arafat "is not making arrests - but we are. Overnight, as well, very important arrests were made, that will certainly influence the capability of the terrorist organizations to continue to strike at us. [While] Arafat does not prevent [terrorism] - we do."

His remarks were apparently in reference to an armor, helicopter gunship and infantry raid on the Ramallah-area West Bank village of Beit Rima, in which the army said five or six Palestinians - all militants or members of the PA security forces - were killed. West Bank preventive security chief, Jibril Rajoub, said that 10 Palestinians had been killed in the raid.

The commander of IDF forces in the West Bank, Gershon Yitzhak, said some of those arrested during the raid were members of the cell that assassinated Ze'evi, although he could not say whether the assassins themselves were among those arrested.

Sharon has maintained that the blockading of six West Bank cities would continue until the PA began seizing militants in its midst, specifically those responsible for Ze'evi's assassination.

But the choice of the target village - raided just hours after President Bush personally let the Sharon government know that America expected the days of the operation to be numbered - suggested that the Wednesday raid may have been on a "now-or-never" list of targets.

"We arrested part of the cell that killed the minister," IDF West Bank forces commander Brigadier-General Yitzhak Gershon told Reuters. "This is the village from which the killers... come from."

Adding to the impression that the end of the incursion may be near, a number of cabinet ministers Wednesday used much-softened language in discussing Israel's conditions for a possible withdrawal, and Sharon's security cabinet was expected to seriously consider ordering the first stages of a pullback when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres returns from Washington on Thursday.

Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh (Labor), a member of the security cabinet, said of the decision on ordering a pullback: "We will have to decide according to two factors: the situation on the ground, and if we see willingness on the part of the Palestinian Authority to better control the areas" now being held by IDF forces.

Early on, Israel had insisted there would be no pullback until the PA tracked down and extradited the killers, a condition that even Israeli security officials said Palestinian leaders would find it impossible to meet.

Leaving Sharon a sliver of operating room, Bush stopped short of setting a deadline for an IDF pullback, but left little doubt of the urgency of his request in voicing hope that Israeli leaders would "move their troops as quickly as possible."

Dumbfounded by the intensity of official American condemnations of the incursion, the government has dispatched a clutch of high-powered emissaries stateside to blunt U.S. opposition. But Alon Pinkas, Israel' s consul-general in New York, was quoted by Israel Radio as saying in a cable to the Foreign Ministry that all the "explainers" in the world would do Sharon no good. "Another raft of bagel and lox breakfasts will have no value other than caloric," the cable reportedly read.

In an op-ed article in Wednesday's Ha'aretz, Gideon Samet writes that Sharon, in defying Washington, "is racing through a red light despite being well aware of the danger of getting into a fight with the Americans, particularly at this sensitive juncture in their relationship with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the prime minister is placing Israel's ties with the White House on a razor's edge. Why? There is one main reason, and the rest is an addendum: He doesn't want an agreement with the Palestinians."

Samet also writes that when Sharon does "fold and he does withdraw his forces during the course of the week, without his ultimatum being met, Sharon will still stick to his political recalcitrance. He will allow his fear of Netanyahu's shadow to block out any chance for a dialogue with the Palestinians. Because Sharon is no less non-compliant than Arafat. In fact, his revulsion for a real settlement is greater than that of the Palestinian leader. Arafat went to top-level talks with former prime minister Ehud Barak. He rejected his proposals, but was prepared to discuss them. Sharon has not even come close to this threshold.

"Following a period of careful scrutiny of his actions, the prime minister must be seen today as a leader pushing the country, with eyes wide shut, toward another disaster."