Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Iran, Iraq and Syria are urging Palestinians to carry out terror attacks, in an effort to disrupt U.S. plans for a possible military strike against Iraq, Israel says. But Israel is trying to prevent an escalation of the situation by entering Palestinian areas to hunt for terrorists, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman said on Friday.
An Israeli soldier was shot and killed by sniper fire in the Gaza Strip on Friday just hours after Israeli armored vehicles and troops rolled into Bethlehem. The move follows a bus bombing in Jerusalem on Thursday that killed 11 people were killed.
The suicide bomber, identified as Na'el Abu Hilayel, 22, was from El-Khader near Bethlehem. His father praised his son's actions in interviews with the foreign press on Thursday.
Residents of Bethlehem reportedly stocked up on goods and cash on Thursday after the terror attack, in anticipation of an Israeli crackdown on the city.
Armored personnel carriers and soldiers took up positions around the Church of the Nativity - built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born - to prevent terrorists from holing up there as dozens of gunmen and others did in April. That earlier incident turned into an ugly five-week standoff that ended with the help of international mediation.
On Friday, Israeli soldiers conducted house to house searches, reports said. According to an army spokesman, 20 arrests were made in the morning hours. Israeli troops are now in all West Bank cities except Jericho.
Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem in August as part of a deal known as Bethlehem-Gaza First. It was part of an attempt to implement a phased truce between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
According to media reports on Friday, that agreement is now null and void.
Sharon's spokesman Dr. Ra'anan Gissin said that Israel had no choice but to re-take Bethlehem. Israel handed over Bethlehem and Hebron to PA control with the "sincere hope" that the PA would stop terror attacks, but they did not do so, he said.
But about six weeks ago, Israel noticed an upsurge in attacks attributed to outside instigation from other states in the region, Gissin said.
"We detected a pattern of a general effort to instigate by [outside] forces to step up terror activity as the U.S. [plans] to go to Iraq to create a diversion [and] unite the Arab world [against Israel]," Gissin said.
There have been 151 terror alerts in the last six weeks - that's 25 per week, he said.
Gissin named Iran, Iraq and Syria as countries that are trying to stir up the Palestinians to carry out more attacks at this time in order to disrupt U.S. plans to attack Iraq.
Iran is using Hizballah to keep the northern border tense; Iraq is disbursing sums of $10,000 or more to the families of suicide bombers; and Syria is hosting terrorist organizations in its capital.
Following a terrorist ambush in Hebron last week, in which12 Israelis were killed, Islamic Jihad, which is headquartered in Damascus, claimed responsibility. Syria rejected a U.S. demand that it close down the Islamic Jihad offices there, saying they were only used for public relations.
Gissin said that while Israel first and foremost must "take care of its citizens" it is also trying to prevent an escalation, even if it seems "tedious" to go in and out of Palestinian cities. The aim is to keep those who plan terror attacks "constantly on the run," he said.
Gissin insisted that Israel is not taking this course of action because of U.S. pressure.
"We don't want to create another point of friction," he said.
Sharon visited the Beit Jala entrance to Bethlehem on Friday and said that the terrorists didn't distinguish between men, women and children in their attacks.
"The only thing, the only distinguishing [factor] is that they are Jews. That is the goal," Sharon said. There is no way to block every attack, he said, but many attacks were prevented.