- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat both accepted yesterday a U.S. proposal to end the Palestinian leader's five-month confinement in Ramallah by turning over to U.S. and British custody the half-dozen suspected assassins sheltered in his Ramallah compound.
Under the plan, the men accused of the October murder of Israel's former tourism minister would be transferred from Ramallah to an undisclosed facility on Palestinian soil. They would be guarded by American and British jailers and then tried under Israeli law.
Mr. Arafat would be freed when the transfer is completed, Israeli officials said last night.
Calling it a "hopeful day for the region," President Bush said yesterday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, "Chairman Arafat is now free to move around and free to lead, and we expect him to do so."
Mr. Sharon will travel to Washington next week, at Mr. Bush's invitation, to discuss the conflict, Israeli authorities said yesterday.
The Israelis also delayed by at least another day the arrival of a U.N. fact-finding mission for Jenin, saying that the mission is inherently biased against Israel.
Israel, which last week reluctantly accepted the group, said it would not cooperate with the panel until more military and terrorism experts were added and the inquiry was expressly confined to the events in Jenin.
In addition, the government wants to approve the list of Israelis who will speak to the panel, and to protect them from future prosecution.
"Why should we help them bring upon Israel this libel, this slander from Jenin?" Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin told reporters yesterday afternoon.
"This awful United Nations committee is out to get us and is likely to smear Israel. No country in the world would agree to such a thing." Asked repeatedly whether the government would allow the team to enter, he said only, "It depends."
Mr. Rivlin did not reject the team outright, but other government officials indicated that cooperation was increasingly unlikely unless U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agrees to Israel's demands.
Israeli troops continued their three-week siege of the Church of the Nativity. Negotiations to put on trial or extradite the accused terrorists within it broke off on Saturday and no resumption has been scheduled.
Some observers were hopeful that if the Ramallah compromise were accepted, a similar formula could be applied to the standoff in Manger Square, where food and water have run low but there is still plenty of ammunition and animosity.
The confrontation endangers the church that stands on the site where, many Christians believe, Jesus was born.
The Ramallah proposal was sent overnight in a letter from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to Mr. Sharon. The Israeli Cabinet accepted it by a vote of 19-7, with Likud and other hard-line parties dissenting.
The proposal was formally submitted to Mr. Arafat during a visit yesterday evening by U.S. and British diplomats. They said the Palestinian leader agreed to it immediately.
Four of the six wanted men were convicted during a daylong trial conducted last week in the Ramallah compound. A fifth was not tried and the sixth, Fouad Shoubaki, has been identified by Israel as the Palestinian Authority's financier of terrorist activities and as its liaison with Iran.
The Palestinians say they are satisfied with the proposal, but demanded that the U.N. fact-finding mission for Jenin arrive as quickly as possible, because the evidence of what they call a "massacre" in Jenin is eroding.
The Israelis say the fighting in Jenin, heavily booby-trapped by the Palestinians, was not a massacre but a battle, and note that they lost 23 dead in the fighting.
So far, 48 Palestinian bodies have been cataloged at the Jenin hospital, including several classified as likely noncombatants.
Urban rescue units have joined in trying to excavate remaining bodies from the rubble.
The U.N. team comprising two humanitarian experts and a former president of Finland is now idling in Geneva while the government and U.N. officials try to work out the details.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been working the telephones to woo key diplomats, while an Israeli legal team has been in New York pressing Israel's demands for changes in the delegation.
The United Nations had no official comment yesterday but the U.N. Security Council had convened yet another private meeting to discuss the situation.
Although Israeli troops have withdrawn from most of the West Bank, they continue to encircle many towns where would-be bombers have been active, including Qalqilya, Nablus and Jenin.
In Hebron yesterday, Palestinians said they were waiting for what many expect will be the inevitable retaliation for the murder of five settlers, including a 5-year-old girl, at the nearby Adore Jewish settlement Saturday morning. Hamas claimed responsibility for the killings, done at point-blank range in the homes of the families.
And early today, dozens of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles entered Hebron, witnesses said.
The armored vehicles came from the west and north and were accompanied by attack helicopters, firing machine guns from the air, and at least one Palestinian was killed, witnesses said.
Israeli military sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that a military operation was under way but would give no further details.

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