- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2002

JERUSALEM The Israeli government yesterday declared a successful conclusion to the first phase of its military operation in the West Bank.
By yesterday afternoon, Israeli troops had pulled back from Palestinian towns, and curfews were lifted in most of the West Bank. Israeli soldiers and equipment remained close by many areas, however, ready to return if necessary.
Troops remained outside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah and at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, seized two weeks ago by 250 Palestinian gunmen who have barricaded themselves inside. Israeli authorities said their troops would remain there indefinitely. In a sermon at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II demanded an end to the standoff at the Church of the Nativity, saying it was marked by "blackmail and an intolerable exchange of accusations."
"We have finished this stage of the operation, called Defensive Shield," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israeli Radio. "I believe we have achieved very notable accomplishments."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the withdrawal was a "big deception" because Israel still has security control of the West Bank. He endorsed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for armed international monitors.
The United Nations, the European Union, the Vatican and Arab leaders have denounced the offensive, which has resulted in severe damage to the civilian infrastructure and what the Israelis describe as the terrorist infrastructure. Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilians have declined dramatically since the military campaign began.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday said he had received a "very troubling" report on conditions in the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of the worst fighting between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops. He said the United States would send tents, food, water-purification equipment and medicine to the region within 48 hours.
The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees told Reuters news agency that 800 dwellings had been destroyed and many more damaged in the camp, leaving 4,000 to 5,000 persons homeless.
"Certainly there is evidence of overwhelming and apparently disproportionate use of force, even if a battle was going on in Jenin camp," said Peter Hansen, commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
Mr. Powell, who concluded a 10-day mission to Europe and the Middle East at the end of the week, suggested yesterday that Israel should loosen its hold on Mr. Arafat and allow him to follow his antiterrorism declaration with meaningful deeds. "I think the more access he is given, the [greater] opportunity he is given to show whether or not he can control forces or bring this security situation under control," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The Sharon government is considering whether to veto the participation of Terje Roed Larsen, the U.N. Middle East envoy, who said after touring Jenin refugee camp earlier this week that Israel's actions were "morally repugnant." Israeli Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, designated by the government to brief the press yesterday, said Mr. Larsen had lost his neutrality and therefore "has ruled himself out as a judge, an arbiter."
The Israelis regard Mr. Larsen as having co-ordinated "a cover-up" of video evidence in a nine-month investigation of how Hezbollah gunmen crossed into the West Bank from Lebanon in United Nations marked cars 18 months ago, seized three Israeli soldiers and murdered them.
Mr. Annan responded through a spokesman, saying Mr. Larsen has always conducted himself with "objectivity, professionalism and compassion."
The Israelis say the sweeping searches and detainments of Operation Defensive Shield are the only way to root out the Palestinians who have sent suicide bombers into Israeli cafes and religious celebrations. They reject criticism of their military response, arguing that their soldiers have taken unusual steps to protect noncombatants.
In Bethlehem, a Franciscan priest inside the Church of the Nativity said food supplies were exhausted. "There is no food left in the church now for the Palestinians or the monks and nuns," the Rev. Ibrahim Faltas told the Associated Press. Electricity was intermittent and there was no running water, he said.
Israeli officials say 250 Palestinian gunmen are barricaded inside the church, as well as 35 to 40 religious figures. Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowitz said yesterday that the Israelis had learned that an additional 50 "young people" were trapped in the church, built on the site where, many Christians believe, Christ was born. He said that the Palestinians had forced the children to live on one cookie a day, without daylight or care.

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