JERUSALEM (AP) _ The incoming Palestinian prime minister issued his strongest defense yet of Yasser Arafat, saying Friday that the United States should treat him as a real partner and condemning President Bush's refusal to deal with the Palestinian leader as only hurting peace efforts.
Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia's criticism of U.S. policy signaled that he will not challenge Arafat. Israel and the United States had initially pressed for the creation of the post of prime minister in hopes of sidelining Arafat, who they say is tainted by terror.
In new violence, Israeli troops blew up the homes of two Hamas suicide bombers and stepped up searches for fugitives in the West Bank. Four soldiers and three Palestinians, including a 12-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, were wounded in gunbattles.
Israel says it will keep up military strikes because Palestinian security forces have failed to dismantle violent groups, as required by the U.S.-backed ``road map'' peace plan.
While the United States has urged the Palestinians to swiftly deal with militants, it also has criticized proposals for an Israeli security barrier that would cut deep into West Bank lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon discussed the barrier's route with Cabinet ministers from his Likud party. They put off a decision until Israeli envoys hear U.S. objections during a visit to Washington next week, a senior Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.
While disagreements over the barrier have caused some friction between Israel and the United States, Bush also renewed his criticism of Arafat.
Arafat ``has failed as a leader,'' Bush said Thursday.
Bush accused Arafat of forcing out Mahmoud Abbas, the first Palestinian prime minister, who resigned Sept. 6, after months of wrangling with Arafat.
Reacting to Bush, Qureia said Friday: ``This is a regrettable statement that does not serve the peace process.''
``Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinian people and represents the will of these people,'' Qureia told The Associated Press. ``Thus we want President Bush and the American administration to respect the will of the Palestinian people. President Arafat is a real partner.''
Arafat's standing was given a considerable boost by Israel's threat last week to ``remove'' him at an unspecified time, posing the possibility he might be expelled or killed.
Israel's announcement drew international condemnation and triggered daily marches in support of Arafat.
Arafat and Qureia this week proposed a comprehensive truce, but Israel says it first wants to see action against militants and doesn't believe a government linked to Arafat can crack down.
``We have, to my great sorrow, a long history of dealing with Yasser Arafat in which it has been proven beyond all doubt that he is a terror leader,'' Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel Radio.
Israel this week resumed incursions into Palestinian areas after cutting back on such raids during a unilateral truce declared by militants that collapsed in mid-August. On Thursday, troops raided a Gaza refugee camp, killing a Hamas fugitive, and entered Jenin in the West Bank.
The latest operations were carried out as ``a result of the Palestinian Authority's failure to take any action against terrorism,'' said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel was ``acting as if there is no road map and no Palestinian Authority.''
On Friday, Israeli troops blew up a house in the village of Rantis, north of Ramallah, that belonged to Ihab Abu Isleem, a Hamas member who killed eight soldiers in a Sept. 9 bombing at a bus stop near Tel Aviv.
Soldiers also demolished a house in the West Bank town of Jenin belonging to the family of Shadi al-Tubasi, who blew himself up at a cafe in the city of Haifa in March 2002, killing 15 Israelis. Israel troops regularly demolish the homes of suicide bombers to discourage others.
Troops came under heavy fire Friday and four soldiers were wounded, one seriously, on the outskirts of Jenin. At least three Palestinians were wounded, including a 12-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, witnesses and hospital officials said.
In other developments, a Jewish settler was charged with weapons theft Friday, and prosecutors said he was procuring arms for Jewish militants suspected of killing eight Palestinians.