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Israel retakes most Palestinian cities

Israel controls six of the eight West Bank cities handed to the Palestinian Authority under peace accords.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 4, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israel controlled almost every major Palestinian city in the West Bank today after troops and armor shot their way into Nablus, a seething militant stronghold.

Twelve Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed Wednesday in operations across the West Bank.

A day after one of Christianity's holiest sites became a battlefield, columns of tanks rolled into Nablus and were headed toward the volatile Balata refugee camp, where witnesses reported heavy shooting.

The move on Nablus was the latest in Israel's takeover of towns and cities across the West Bank in a massive offensive that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says is designed to stop a wave of suicide bombers.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested, dozens killed and huge amounts of property destroyed in the operation. But Israeli officials say they haven't captured any top-level militants, and suicide bombings have continued.

As Israel presses ahead with its campaign in the West Bank, the move into Nablus is especially risky. It is the Palestinians' second largest West Bank city, with more than 180,000 people, and its cramped, labyrinthine old city has always been synonymous in the Israeli lexicon with nightmarish urban warfare. Several of the suicide attacks were launched from the Nablus area.

Palestinian fighters were congregated in the old city Wednesday, planting sandbags and planning resistance.

Also Wednesday, Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships fought their way into the West Bank city of Jenin and the town of Salfit. A female nurse, a 13-year-old boy, a male civilian and three Palestinian gunmen, along with an Israeli soldier, were killed in that operation.

In Bethlehem, a standoff between the Israeli army and about 200 Palestinian gunmen holed up inside the Church of the Nativity continued into a second day. Negotiations were under way to stave off a blood bath on the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. Paratroopers fanned out through the narrow streets of Bethlehem.

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement calling on Palestinians to resist.

"The Palestinian leadership urges our people to close ranks in a long-term struggle against this occupation and to mobilize all its resources ... to confront this unjust and criminal war," the statement said.

Under the landmark 1993 Oslo peace accords, eight West Bank cities were handed to the Palestinian Authority. Only two of them, Hebron and Jericho, were still under Palestinian control today. In the others -- Nablus, Ramallah, Qalqilya, Jenin, Tulkarm and Bethlehem -- tanks patrolled streets and confined hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to their homes. In Ramallah, residents were without water after city officials said Israeli troops destroyed the main pumping station when shelling a Palestinian security compound.

Sharon has not set any deadline on the operation, saying only that it would be an "extended" campaign to root out the infrastructure of terrorism.

Most military experts expect that the operation will last at least two weeks, and perhaps six or more.

The tactics and objectives of the operation came as little surprise to Israelis -- or Palestinians -- who began rushing to stock up on bread and water. The Israelis have entered Palestinian-ruled areas several times now, most recently last month.

If the raids last month focused on several specific areas, this time the army has taken each city over in its entirety, with tanks or rooftop observation posts covering all major streets and intersections. Residents are being forced off the streets under threat of being shot, and the searches are reportedly very thorough.

In Ramallah, the Israelis did not hesitate to smash the headquarters of Jibril Rajoub, the West Bank security chief, in order to ferret out armed men.

In the areas taken over by Israeli troops, all Palestinian men between 15 and 40 have been ordered to report to a collection point, usually a school, where they are screened. Those selected for further investigation are transported to a military detention center. Those identified as potential terror suspects have been handed over to the intelligence service for investigation and possible trial or detention.

Initial figures were available only for Ramallah, where the raids began. The army said 700 men were sent to the detention center, though it did not say how many were identified as serious suspects.

Standoff at church keeps Bethlehem tense

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Demolished cars lined the narrow streets of Bethlehem. Shutters were ripped from the shops. And inside the homes, where frightened residents huddled for a second day, the dead shared space with the wounded.

In one small house, a woman named Fatheyeh Mousa wailed for help to get a dead man's body removed from her kitchen. She did not know the man. He was named Abdel Khader Abu Ahmad, he told her, and came from a Palestinian refugee camp in neighboring Jordan. But he was wounded during the early hours of the Israeli invasion Tuesday and the family took him in. With no ambulances allowed on the streets, he died on a thin mat on her kitchen floor.

Nearby, in a small mosque, the body of another man, apparently a fighter, lay partially covered under a green coat and a striped blanket. The man had been wounded and, judging from the bloodstained bandages over his right arm, someone had tried to give him first aid.

These were some of the sights of Bethlehem two days after Israeli armored forces -- moving from the north on the road from Jerusalem and from the south passing the Dheisha refugee camp -- took control of the city and spread out around the churches and shrines erected to mark its role as the place where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.

Initial resistance by Palestinian gunmen armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades had largely died away. But Israeli troops stood at Manger Square and faced the Church of the Nativity. About 200 Palestinian fighters who had retreated into the church were surrounded by a ring of Israeli armor and troops.

Father Parthenius, a Canadian Greek Orthodox priest inside, said the Palestinian militiamen were frightened but respectful of the church and the clergy. Several wounded militiamen were treated on the scene, he said, mostly with light injuries.

The Church of the Nativity is shared by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian church, and the Roman Catholic Church. The biggest problem was lack of food; Father Parthenius said they were surviving on coffee, tea and biscuits.

"They're carrying their own weapons," he said. "But I think they are out of ammunition."

He said the militiamen never tried to fire from the church, which would be difficult from the windowless structure. Negotiations were underway to end the standoff. But Father Parthenius said he was unsure what the resolution might be. He said the fighters have outlined no specific conditions that would get them to leave.

"To tell you the truth, we don't know what they want," he said. "I will never ask them to leave. It's up to them."

Another standoff at a nearby Bethlehem convent, Santa Maria, ended Wednesday when the Israeli army entered the compound to escort out the priest and five nuns who it said had been held hostage inside. An Israeli army statement said the gunmen inside "escaped through the back door."

-- Information from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.

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