JERUSALEM -- Israel insists on holding six West Bank towns until its demands are met, despite stiff U.S. criticism of the widest Israeli incursion in seven years.
While complaining bitterly about the Israeli stranglehold on six of the eight main towns in the West Bank, Palestinians also charged Monday that Israel was behind an explosion that killed a prominent Hamas militant in the city of Nablus.
In Washington, the U.S. government issued its harshest criticism yet of the Israeli incursion, rejecting Israeli arguments that the move was necessary in the wake of the assassination of Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi last week.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker expressed regret over the deaths of Palestinian civilians during the operation, now in its sixth day.
"Israel Defense Forces should be withdrawn immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas, and no further such incursions should be made," said Reeker.
Israel has remained defiant, responding with a statement that said, "The murder of Rehavam Zeevi crossed the red line, and Israel, as any democratic country, is exerting its right to self defense and the defense of its citizens."
Exchanges of fire continued at night in the biblical town of Bethlehem, where Israeli tanks took up positions a few miles from the Church of the Nativity, marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
While attention was directed at the Israeli tanks and troops on the outskirts of some towns and in the heart of others, a Hamas leader in Nablus was killed in a bomb blast.
The Israeli government and military did not claim responsibility for the death of Ayman Halaweh when his car exploded. But Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo called it an Israeli "criminal attack and a call for an escalation."
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