- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

JERUSALEM Heavy gunfire rocked the sacred Church of the Nativity last night, as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell prepared to leave the Middle East without negotiating a cease-fire or winning Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank.
Mr. Powell said yesterday that he is making progress in talks with Israel and Palestinian leaders and that he hopes to work out a partial cease-fire before he stops in Egypt today on his way back to Washington.
"I think we are making progress and are looking forward to making more progress in the next 24 hours," Mr. Powell said. "But I don't want to get into specifics as to what I'll be able to achieve and not able to achieve."
Mr. Powell arrived here Thursday and has been meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders throughout his visit to persuade them to halt the hostilities, and for Israel to withdraw as quickly as possible from the West Bank.
But both sides are imposing preconditions before they agree to a formal cessation of the hostilities that have claimed at least 1,800 lives in the last 18 months.
Meanwhile, a gunbattle erupted at the sacred Church of the Nativity shortly after sunset.
Palestinians said Israeli troops tried to storm the church, where some 200 Palestinian fighters, civilians and church officials have been holed up for two weeks. Israeli officials said they were returning fire but did not shoot first.
"The exchange of fire lasted for about an hour. It is hard for us to determine who started the shooting," the Rev. Seweryn Lubecki told Reuters news agency by telephone from the church.
"It seems that the basilica was not damaged. The Israeli soldiers are very careful not to damage it," he said.
Mr. Powell met for an hour yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the third time on this trip, and is scheduled to sit down with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat this morning.
Mr. Sharon has suggested convening a regional conference to discuss political solutions and said last night that Mr. Arafat might attend.
The Israeli leader, who two months ago pronounced Mr. Arafat "irrelevant" and more recently said he would not be welcome, said yesterday that it was not up to him to decide who participates.
The Israelis say the conference should be in the United States, a request that Washington has not formally accepted.
"In principle, there is agreement that such a conference will be held, and there will be an Israeli delegation, a Palestinian delegation and delegations of other countries," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.
President Bush yesterday allowed the Palestine Liberation Organization to keep an office in Washington for another six months but said he would make future U.S. aid to the Palestinians contingent on whether Mr. Arafat cracks down on terrorism.
In a memorandum to Mr. Powell, Mr. Bush said it was "important to the national security interests of the United States" to again waive the provisions of a 1987 law that imposes restrictions on PLO activities.
The six-month waivers have been routine since 1994, when the PLO and Israel recognized each other. But Mr. Bush has been under pressure from pro-Israeli groups in the United States to crack down on the PLO in retaliation for a wave of suicide bombings in the Jewish state.
Without the waiver, the PLO office in Washington would have to close and PLO officials would have trouble visiting and traveling in the United States.
Last week, the PLO said it had been evicted from its Washington office for what it said were political reasons.
Hopes for general calm ebbed yesterday as Palestinians raged over the arrest Monday of Marwan Barghouti, the head of the Fatah militia and the reported mastermind of many suicide bombings by the affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Palestinians also are starting to dig out towns and cities reduced in some places to rubble by Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships.
By some estimates, the destruction has postponed a viable Palestinian state by decades.
The United States has been trying to help negotiate an end to the two-week standoff at the Bethlehem church, built over what is believed to be Jesus' birthplace.
As many as 40 religious officials are inside with the Palestinians and face dwindling supplies of food and water.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, Israel has not begun a decisive withdrawal from the West Bank towns and cities that had been under Palestinian control.
Israeli tanks yesterday rumbled into three predominantly Arab suburbs of Jerusalem and briefly re-entered two towns.
When asked about the timetable and degree of withdrawal from the West Bank, Sharon foreign policy adviser Daniel Ayalon said yesterday that troops would roll back from population centers but would stay close enough to be redeployed if necessary.
Mr. Sharon, in his speech to the Israeli parliament on Monday, advocated creating buffer zones between Palestinian and Israeli lands. He also demanded credible action from the Palestinian Authority to thwart terrorism.
The Palestinians say they have publicly condemned violence and refuse to discuss political goals until the Israeli forces have withdrawn totally from the West Bank.
These preconditions have thus far proved to be irreconcilable for Mr. Powell.
In Cairo today, Mr. Powell will meet with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher and Egyptian leaders to discuss Washington's efforts to broker a truce.

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