APrepost | 02.04.2002 23:21
Israel seizes control of two more towns; Palestinian gunmen shelter in birthplace of Jesus
Eds: AMs. SUBS 3rd graf pvs to UPDATE with new suicide bombing; SUBS last graf with 2 grafs to UPDATE with death toll from last week's Passover banquet bombing raised from 24 to 25, bombing attempt foiled.
By LAURA KING, AP Special Correspondent
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Widening its offensive in the West Bank, Israel seized control of two more towns Tuesday in a day of wild fighting that left at least 13 Palestinians dead. Palestinian gunmen forced their way into the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and Israeli tanks and attack helicopters pounded the headquarters of a powerful Palestinian security chief.
Amid what has become the fiercest Israeli offensive in 18 months of conflict, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat angrily rejected an Israeli proposal to free him from confinement in his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah - provided he goes into exile. Arafat spent a fifth straight day pinned down by Israeli troops and tanks, his compound now ringed by barbed wire.
Israeli troops pressed ahead with house-to-house searches for Palestinian militants and weapons as part of what Israel has dubbed «Operation Protective Wall» - aimed at halting a wave of terror attacks targeting Israelis, including seven suicide bombings in the past seven days.
In a dramatic gesture meant to underscore hardships caused by the Israeli incursion, Palestinians buried 15 of their dead in a hospital parking lot in Ramallah because their families had been unable to claim the bodies, which were decomposing in a hospital morgue due to power cuts. Relatives wailed and gunfire from fighting echoed as the bodies were placed in common graves carved out by a bulldozer - one for 13 men, one for two women.
Ramallah residents, though, got a respite of a few hours from a curfew that has been in effect since Israeli tanks and troops moved in on Friday. People poured into the shops, lugging away big canisters of cooking oil and plastic bags bulging with pita bread. Canned goods were popular, as many people have no electricity and perishable food has been rotting in refrigerators.
By nightfall Tuesday, most of the about 400 Palestinians trapped in the compound of West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub had surrendered to Israeli troops, in a deal brokered by U.S. and European officials. About eight men remained inside. The sprawling compound was battered by the Israeli onslaught, with gaping holes punched in rooftops and building facades by shellfire and rockets.
Holy places were not immune from violence that raged the length and breadth of the West Bank. Dozens of armed Palestinians were holed up inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is built over the grotto where Christian faithful believe Jesus was born. About 20 of the gunmen were wounded and being tended to by nuns, said witnesses trapped inside the church compound.
The armed men, some of them Palestinian policemen, forced their way into the church after running battles with Israeli troops firing from helicopter gunships and from tank-mounted machine guns. At nightfall, the bodies of four dead gunmen lay sprawled just off Manger Square, where the church is located.
As the fighting intensified, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed publicly for the first time that diplomats fly Arafat into exile. Sharon noted that such a move would require Cabinet approval, but Arafat pre-empted any such move by rejecting the offer out of hand.
«Is it his (Sharon's) homeland or ours?» Arafat said in an interview with the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera. He added that he would rather be a «martyr» than go into exile.
Throughout the conflict, much has been made of Sharon and Arafat's bitter personal enmity, which many observers see as a driving force behind the fighting. «These two people...have lived this conflict for a very long time - too long if you ask me,» European Union security chief Javier Solana told Spain's Cadena SER radio.
Battles have been raging almost around the clock, and Tuesday was no exception. Tanks rolled into the West Bank towns of Tulkarem and Bethlehem before dawn, and the assault on the headquarters of Rajoub, in the West Bank village of Beitunia, also came in the predawn hours.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the offensive would last about three to four weeks, the first senior Israeli official to give a time frame. However, Sharon has said the campaign was open-ended.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Israel should end the campaign quickly, but suggested the United States would not insist on an immediate Israeli withdrawal. «I would guess it will take them (the Israelis) a couple of weeks» to conclude the mission, Powell said on NBC's Today show.
Mass roundups of Palestinian men ranging from their mid-teens to their mid-40s continued Tuesday - a tactic denounced by Palestinians as collective punishment, but defended by Israel as a legitimate means of hunting down wanted men. About 700 suspects have been rounded up since Friday in Ramallah, according to the army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey.
Palestinian civilians have mainly tried to stay out of harm's way by huddling inside their homes, and the streets proved deadly dangerous again Tuesday. A 56-year-old Palestinian woman was fatally shot on her way home from Ramallah Hospital, apparently by an Israeli sniper, doctors said. She had gone to the hospital to have a plaster cast removed from her leg, they said.
Lately, each day of fighting has brought some first. The forces of Rajoub, who formerly had close links to U.S. intelligence, had not previously come under Israeli attack. And until now, the fighting had not spilled over into the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest shrines.
Israeli forces have entered Bethlehem several times during the past 18 months of fighting, but they are under orders not to harm holy places, and have kept their distance from the church. That, however, makes it an attractive sanctuary for Palestinian gunmen.
There was also a heavy exchange of fire outside the Santa Maria Convent in downtown Bethlehem run by the Salesians, a Roman Catholic order. Near the convent, 64-year-old Samieh Abdeh and her 38-year-old son Khaled were wounded by Israeli fire at their home, Abdeh's son Sami said. Israeli troops prevented ambulances from reaching the home, and the two bled to death, Sami Abdeh said.
In an appeal to U.S. President George W. Bush, leaders of Christian denominations in the area asked to «stop immediately the inhuman tragedy that is taking place in this Holy Land in our Palestinian towns and villages.»
Also Tuesday, three Israelis died of wounds sustained in last week's suicide bombing during a Passover banquet in an Israeli hotel. That brought the total number of victims to 25, making it the deadliest Palestinian attack in 18 months of fighting.
A Palestinian man blew himself up but did not injure others Tuesday night when security forces stopped him at a checkpoint in Baka al-Sharkiyeh, a Palestinian village along the line between Israel and the West Bank.