Israeli forces invade Hebron

West Bank offensive widens

Bethlehem standoff continues

Zinni to meet Arafat today

April 05, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli army expanded its offensive by entering the city of Hebron, pressing ahead yesterday with a military campaign that has turned nearly all of the West Bank into a battlefield and confined hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians to their homes.

Tanks rumbled into Hebron an hour before President Bush urged Israel to withdraw its troops from the West Bank.

Israeli forces now occupy all but one of the major West Bank cities. Heavy fighting continued, and stores, schools and hospitals remained sealed off.

Fierce battles raged in the streets of Jenin and Nablus. Last night, Israeli soldiers were advancing toward Nablus' central marketplace, where hundreds of Palestinian gunmen had gathered.

In Bethlehem, a standoff at the Church of the Nativity entered its third day. At least 120 armed Palestinian fighters have taken refuge in the church built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born, and Israeli forces surrounded the building.

Gunfights took place just outside in Manger Square, staining the stone courtyard with blood and leading to the death of a 45-year-old bell- ringer who was walking from his house to the church. The Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, the church caretaker, screamed over the roar of machine-gun fire as he spoke by telephone to an Italian television station.

"We are in the middle. Help us! Help us!"

About 1 a.m. today, Bethlehem Gov. Mohamed el-Madani said by telephone from inside St. Catherine's Church, next to the Church of the Nativity, that he had heard four explosions and sustained gunfire. Israeli soldiers had entered the east courtyard of the compound, Madani said.

An Israeli military spokesman said the Palestinians had opened fire after midnight, but Israeli troops had not returned fire in order to protect the church and clerics inside.

"The shooting is coming from inside the church at Israeli soldiers, who are not responding," said Israel Defense Forces spokesman Marcus Scheff. He said he did not know whether soldiers had entered the compound.

Amid the widespread fighting yesterday, it was impossible to accurately determine the number of dead and wounded. Ambulance crews have been prevented from entering most areas.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said yesterday morning that 81 Palestinians had been killed since Friday; at least 10 more Palestinians were reported killed during the day. Five Israeli soldiers and one border policeman have been killed in the fighting.

Israeli Gen. Shual Mofaz, the army's chief of staff, said he needs another four to eight weeks to crush the Palestinian militants and their organizations. But military officials acknowledged that they had no more than 72 hours before pressure from the United States would force them to begin a withdrawal.

Bush announced that he is sending Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region next week, but urged an immediate Israeli pullback. Israeli officials believe that Powell's schedule will allow their offensive to continue for several days.

Less than an hour after Bush spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would allow U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni to meet with Arafat in his ruined compound in Ramallah, where he remains pinned down by Israeli tanks. The meeting is expected to take place today. Sharon opposed earlier meetings with Arafat, and barred European diplomats yesterday from traveling to Ramallah, saying that Arafat's isolation must be absolute.

Sharon, in a statement, said the offensive would continue.

"Yielding to terror will bring about its spread," he said. "It should be acted against with determination, and Israel will do it."

Israel launched "Operation Defensive Shield" last Friday to neutralize Palestinian militias that have attacked Israeli civilians, especially through suicide bombings. Israeli soldiers have taken over Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Qalquilya, Jenin, Nablus and Hebron, and have detained more than 2,000 Palestinians.

A standoff continues in Bethlehem, where Palestinian gunmen forced their way into the Church of Nativity on Tuesday. Priests and nuns have fed them and tended to about 20 wounded.

Israeli soldiers surrounding the church have negotiated with priests through a closed wooden door and by telephone with Palestinian officials. But as of last night, there no was sign that the standoff was about to end.

At midday yesterday, people inside the church reported hearing an explosion followed by gunfire, and told reporters by telephone that soldiers had blasted open the back doors. Israeli officials adamantly denied the report, saying they would not fire at the church.

Israeli Col. Marcel Aviv, who is leading the negotiations to end the siege, said last night that the blast heard was from soldiers blasting open a door at a nearby house to search for gunmen.

"Not a single shot was fired by forces toward the church," he said.

Aviv said the priests and nuns were being held hostage, and that the army has offered to send in food and medicine.

"Our offers have been denied," he said. "We have no intentions of using weapons against religious places. But we have a task of getting all the terrorists out, and I hope without any casualties."

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, said yesterday that the priests and nuns were technically free to go but could not leave because of the danger of being shot outside.

Army officers said last night that they would guarantee church personnel safe passage.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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