Israeli troops swept through Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem yesterday as the US prepared to follow a trail of mounting casualties on both sides with a new truce mission by its Middle East envoy.
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a Palestinian headquarters after Israeli forces had killed Major-General Ahmed Mefrej, the chief of the Palestinian National Security Forces in the area.
At least 27 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since late Thursday. A Palestinian gunman killed five Israelis in a Gaza settlement, drawing a bloody Israeli sweep through a village in response.
US President George W. Bush, in a surprise move, announced on Thursday he was sending Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region next week to seek a ceasefire.
"I am deeply concerned about the tragic loss of life and escalating violence in the Middle East," Bush said in Washington. "There are no assurances [of success]. That's not going to prevent our government from trying."
Following a strategy charted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to hit the Palestinians hard until they sue for peace, the army sent troops and tanks backed by helicopters into Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, from two directions.
They also entered the nearby town of Beit Jala and the Aida and Deheisheh refugee camps, on Bethlehem's outskirts.
Three Palestinians were killed and scores wounded in heavy fighting around Bethlehem, hospital officials said.
"The forces took over wide areas in [Bethlehem and Beit Jala]," the army said in a statement early yesterday. "House-to-house searches are under way for terrorists, munitions and terrorist infrastructure."
Witnesses said the troops had not entered the center of Bethlehem around the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christians who believe Jesus was born on the spot.
Israeli soldiers raiding the village of Khuza'a shot dead Mefrej, the most senior Palestinian commander killed since the uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000.
At least one other member of the Palestinian National Security Forces was among 16 other Palestinians who were also killed in Khuza'a, where soldiers went from house to house in a search for militants and arms.
Mefrej's colleagues said he was shot in the chest after going to Khuza'a to defend the village against Israeli troops.
Israeli Brigadier-General Imad Faris, commander of the Givati brigade which was involved in the Gaza fighting, told Army Radio that Mefrej had not been a "marked target."
But the Palestinian commander had been "where he shouldn't have been."
The Palestinian Authority issued a statement praising Mefrej and said "a number of his officers and soldiers were also martyred during a noble battle."
The Israeli force pulled out of the village after daybreak.
Four Palestinians were killed when Israeli gunboats attacked a Palestinian police station in northern Gaza.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in the helicopter strike on the headquarters of the National Security Forces in southern Gaza.
Palestinian Public Security chief Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh was in the building preparing for Mefrej's funeral but left after hearing helicopters hovering over the installation.
Late on Thursday, a Palestinian gunman infiltrated Gaza's heavily guarded Atzmona Jewish settlement, killing five students and wounding more than 20 others in a religious academy that prepares 18-year-olds for induction into the army.