- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank A makeshift court in Yasser Arafat's compound convicted four Palestinians yesterday of slaying Israel's tourism minister, a move aimed at ending the three-week Israeli siege of the Palestinian leader.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected the convictions and repeated demands for the hand-over of the men. But he was considering allowing Mr. Arafat to leave his West Bank offices and return to Gaza if the Palestinian leader were to crack down on militants, an aide said.
Israel also allowed the governor of Ramallah to leave Mr. Arafat's compound, Palestinian sources said.
At the other standoff in the West Bank, nine Palestinian youths emerged from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, carrying two bodies on stretchers. The youths left the church under a deal struck the day before by negotiators.
The young Palestinians, escorted by two monks, set the bodies in the middle of Manger Square, where they were collected by ambulances.
It was the largest group to leave the church since more than 200 Palestinians mostly armed took refuge at the site that was then surrounded by Israeli troops who entered Bethlehem on April 2.
Israeli authorities detained the youths for questioning, a Palestinian official said.
Witnesses said about 10 tanks and 10 armored vehicles entered Hebron town early yesterday and that soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinians and made arrests before pulling out. The army said it arrested a Fatah activist.
A member of Mr. Arafat's elite security unit Force 17 was killed and at least four Palestinians wounded, Palestinians said.
In Gaza, Israeli soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians who tried to infiltrate the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom early yesterday, the military said.
Also yesterday, a Palestinian approached an Israeli roadblock in a car and blew it up before trying to escape on foot, the military said. Soldiers shot and killed him.
Negotiations adjourned after three hours of diccussions yesterday on ending the standoff around the Bethlehem church, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, built over what is believed to be the site of Jesus' birth. The Palestinians have proposed that the gunmen be escorted to the Gaza Strip. Israel demands they surrender or accept deportation.
Mustafa Issa, the governor of Ramallah, was the first Palestinian to leave Mr. Arafat's compound since Israeli tanks and troops surrounded it shortly after their West Bank incursion on March 29.
Mr. Sharon was considering a plan by which Mr. Arafat would be allowed to leave his Ramallah offices for the Gaza Strip, to give him the opportunity to crack down on militant groups, said Sharon aide Danny Ayalon.
"If Arafat commits himself to fight terror in Gaza, we will consider letting him move to Gaza," Mr. Ayalon said. The proposal has not formally been conveyed to Mr. Arafat, he said.
Israel has demanded the hand-over of militants inside Mr. Arafat's compound whom it suspects of assassinating Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi last October.
In a nod to the demand, four men were put on trial for involvement in Mr. Zeevi's killing in a court inside Mr. Arafat's offices, where security officials acted as judges, the prosecution and the defense.
Gunman Hamdi Quran was sentenced to 18 years in prison; lookout Basel Al-Asmar, 12 years; getaway driver Majdi Rimawi, eight years; and Ahmad Gholmy was sentenced to one year for knowing of the plot but failing to inform authorities.
Mr. Arafat approved the sentences, aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said from inside the shell-shattered headquarters.
Mr. Sharon dismissed the convictions and said Israel's demands stand. "They will anyway be brought to trial in Israel," Mr. Sharon told reporters.


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