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Israel blazes on with offensive

Ignoring a plea from President Bush to withdraw, Israel says its mission isn't complete and likely won't be even when Colin Powell arrives.

©Washington Post
April 8, 2002


JERUSALEM -- Defying a direct appeal from President Bush to end a 10-day military campaign that has left an estimated 200 Palestinians dead, Israeli tanks and helicopters Sunday battled defiant Palestinian fighters holding out in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin.

The conflict in Nablus was particularly intense. Fighting was taking place in narrow alleyways and in some cases involved close combat from door to door. A military commander said 30 Palestinians had been killed in Nablus since midday Friday, but the real toll was unknown since Israeli troops prevented ambulances from collecting the dead and wounded.

Palestinian medical sources said 12 people were killed Sunday in Nablus, including six armed fighters who died when a bakery they were using as their firing position was hit by an Israeli shell or missile and collapsed on them. Palestinians said 42 people, including civilians and gunmen, have been killed in Nablus since Israel reoccupied the town Thursday.

In Jenin, at least 14 Palestinians and seven Israeli soldiers have died in fighting since Friday. The battles have centered on a Palestinian refugee camp. Six Israeli soldiers were injured in Jenin on Sunday, the army said.

Early today, helicopter gunships fired nearly 20 missiles into the refugee camp, witnesses said.

The attack came after troops used loudspeakers to warn militants and urge them to surrender, witnesses said.

Bush in a Saturday phone call to Sharon appealed for a pullback "without delay." In New York, the U.N. Security Council on Sunday insisted on "immediate implementation" of resolutions demanding an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities without delay. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon showed few signs Sunday of complying.

A statement issued after the Israeli cabinet meeting Sunday made no mention of winding down the operation, but quoted Sharon as saying, "a difficult campaign is under way, and that much has been achieved." Israeli Army Maj. Gen. Dan Harel said if the deadline for finishing the operation is the end of the week, when Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to arrive, "We won't be able to finish the job, period."

Sharon told Bush in the telephone call only that he would make "every effort to accelerate" the campaign, Israeli officials said. They said the United States understood that the campaign would take time to complete and that the effort to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties was one reason to proceed methodically and not be rushed.

But national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday on CNN's Late Edition that while Bush understands a withdrawal "can't be helter-skelter and chaotic" he still "does expect this withdrawal to begin."

Powell said Sharon has "taken very much to heart" Bush's appeal but has not set a timetable, nor has Bush demanded one. "The president doesn't give orders to a sovereign prime minister of another country," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press. Powell said he spoke to Sharon on Sunday and is confident Bush's call "will not be ignored."

The operation has boosted Sharon's once-sagging poll ratings and given the Israeli public a sense that they are finally striking back after the suicide bombings. At the same time, Bush's appeal for withdrawal has put pressure on Israel, which gets about $3-billion a year in aid from the United States, its closest ally.

The army has declared West Bank towns under siege as closed military areas, making it difficult to get a clear sense of the operation. Military curfews remain in effect, meaning hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are forced to remain indoors, afraid to venture outdoors for fear of being shot by Israeli soldiers. In Ramallah, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains confined with aides to a few rooms of a devastated compound that was once his West Bank headquarters, now ringed by Israeli armor.

In Bethlehem, a standoff continued at the Church of the Nativity, which is built on the site believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Inside the church are 200 Palestinians, including armed fighters, police officers and officials, who fled there after the Israeli invasion of the town Tuesday. Israeli troops and armor have ringed the church compound, and military officials have said the clergymen and nuns trapped inside are being held hostage by the Palestinians.

Attempts to find a peaceful end to the standoff have failed, raising fears that Israeli troops might try to storm one of the most sacred sites in Christianity. Israeli military spokesmen have strongly denied any intention to assault the church.

The Rev. Ibrahim Faltas told the Associated Press by phone that priests in the basilica celebrated Mass even without local worshipers and the usual choir. Worshipers are confined to their houses by the Israeli army's curfew.

"The church is sad, the church is miserable," Faltas said. "We prayed to Jesus Christ to bring peace to this town.

"But we are sure that God in the end will help us to bear this crisis. It is the first time ever the Nativity is empty. But we believe God heard our prayers and peace will return to Bethlehem, the town where Jesus Christ was born, no doubt about that."

The Palestinians who sought refuge in the church did not participate in the service. They were in a different building within the complex, he said.

Outside, Israeli troops demanded through a loudspeaker that the Palestinians surrender. They refused.

Also Sunday, Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon stepped up efforts to open a "second front" on Israel's northern border. Israel said several Israeli border positions came under attack by mortars and antitank missiles, wounding six Israelis in two incidents. Israel responded by firing artillery and later launching airstrikes at Hezbollah positions across the border into Lebanon.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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