Fighting in Middle East shifts to Gaza

Israel agrees to allow U.N. fact-finding in Jenin

Bomber wounds soldiers

Arafat offers five suspects tried in assassination


JERUSALEM - After a lull in fighting while Israel's military withdrew many of its soldiers from the West Bank, violence shifted to Gaza yesterday, with Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen skirmishing and a Palestinian suicide bomber striking at a military checkpoint.

The fresh fighting was accompanied by evidence of some diplomatic movement. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday that the organization could send a representative to gather information on Israeli military action in Jenin, where Israel's forces have come under bitter criticism for leveling wide swaths of a refugee camp that was home to about 13,000 Palestinians.

And last night, the Security Council unanimously approved a U.S. resolution supporting a U.N. fact-finding mission to Jenin.

Also yesterday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat offered to place before Palestinian courts five men wanted by Israel in the killing of an Israeli Cabinet member last year, Reuters reported.

Those men, Israel says, are holed up with the Palestinian leader at his headquarters in Ramallah, and Israel wants them handed over.

The suicide bombing in Gaza, which has been exempt from the three-week Israeli military operation, was the first attack of its sort in that Palestinian-controlled territory in five months. It injured two Israeli soldiers as the bomber blew himself up in a car near the Kissufim crossing in central Gaza.

Militants in Gaza yesterday vowed "murder for murder," and a member of Hamas said that the radical Palestinian group would carry out more attacks.

In other parts of Gaza, two armed Palestinian militants tried to infiltrate the Jewish settlement of Netzarim. Both men were killed by soldiers, the Israeli military said.

Israeli forces also made a brief incursion into southern Gaza, near the border with Egypt at the city of Rafah, where they exchanged gunfire with Palestinian militants, the Israeli military said. Unconfirmed reports said that three Palestinian civilians were killed and six injured by Israeli fire.

Israel's agreement to allow a fact-finding mission in Jenin came after unsparing criticism of the Israeli military operation there by a U.N. senior envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, who compared the destruction to an earthquake. "However just the cause is, there are illegitimate means, and the means that have been used here are illegitimate and morally repugnant," he said after viewing the destruction for the first time this week.

His remarks have caused shudders of anger in Israeli society and have become a prominent element of a pitched public relations battle.

Yesterday, Palestinians in Jenin buried 35 victims of the fighting in a mass grave in an olive grove, not long after the last Israeli troops pulled out.

At the same time, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that the confirmed death toll of Palestinians killed in the fighting in Jenin was 48, of whom 45 wore uniforms and two wore suicide bomb belts, he said. The Palestinians have claimed hundreds were killed.

Israel acknowledged that Palestinians are suffering but said that humanitarian problems in the West Bank were a natural offshoot of a necessary military campaign, and that the U.N. characterizations of the problems were irresponsible and overstated.

"The effects are distorted; the effects are untrue," said Gideon Meir, a senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Are the Palestinian people under stress? The answer is yes. But does Israel want them to be under stress? The answer is no. The problem here is the terrorists, who had to be stopped from murdering more Israeli civilians."

The centrist newspaper Ma'ariv published a front-page column yesterday by its editor-in-chief that described Larsen as "a good friend and an enthusiastic supporter of Yasser Arafat" and said that Larsen "simply is not capable of distinguishing between good and evil."

Tensions in Gaza came as military activities in the West Bank have been gradually scaled back, with soldiers withdrawing from several Palestinian cities and Israeli reservists, many of whom were involved in the fighting at the Jenin refugee camp, being discharged home.

The Israeli Defense Forces remained involved in localized sieges. In Ramallah, Arafat remained confined to his compound after more than three weeks there. Israel says the siege will not end until Arafat turns over five men wanted in the killing last year of Israel's tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi.

In Bethlehem, Christian clergymen, Palestinian militants and civilians remain isolated inside the Church of the Nativity, also besieged by Israeli forces.

Israeli military units also remained in the city of Nablus, although Israel has said that it expects to withdraw them any day, and enter a phase of its operation in which it will conduct military operations as intelligence reports dictate.

One of those operations Thursday captured Husam Ataf Ali Badran, a Hamas military commander that the military accused of dispatching suicide bombers who killed scores of civilians in recent months, including attacks in Jerusalem and Netanya.

Badran and three other militants were seized near Nablus after Israeli Air Force helicopters fired upon a group he was hiding with, the military said. Colonel Hilik Sofer, a battalion commander who participated in the raid, described Badran as a coward.

"Again and again, the leaders of the terrorist organizations who send their men to commit suicide acts, easily surrender in order to save their lives," the colonel said.

Two other militants were killed in the helicopter attack, the military said.

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