- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

JERUSALEM Palestinian gunmen yesterday sought sanctuary from Israeli soldiers at one of Christianity's holiest sites Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered Yasser Arafat a "one-way ticket" to exile.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, about 400 Palestinians trapped in the compound of West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub surrendered to Israeli troops in a deal brokered by U.S. and European officials.
But at least 10 men described by Israel as fugitives stayed behind, and the army said it was determined to arrest them.
At least 13 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier died in gunbattles that spread to Jenin and other towns in the West Bank.
Today, on the sixth day of the offensive, Israeli tanks swept into Jenin and Salfeet.
At least 30 tanks rumbled into Jenin from all sides during the pre-dawn incursion, and they exchanged heavy machine-gun fire with Palestinians in the city and at the entrance of a refugee camp, witnesses said. Israeli forces took over several tall buildings that provided views into the refugee camp, witnesses said.
A Palestinian woman, Fadwa Jammal, 27, died after she was shot in the abdomen, said Mohammed Abu Ghali, director of the city's hospital.
In Salfeet, the Israeli tanks did not appear to be meeting with armed resistance.
The Israeli offensive was touched off by a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings during the weeklong Passover holiday that began last Wednesday and ended yesterday.
The heaviest clashes erupted near Manger Square in Bethlehem, where Palestinian fighters battled to keep Israeli troops at bay before seeking refuge in the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Tanks entered the square early yesterday for the first time since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. A shell fired from an Israeli tank slammed into a home in the area, killing a mother and her son.
Mr. Sharon, during a visit to soldiers, told reporters the government was considering new measures, including sanctions against the families of the bombers, to combat suicide attacks.
Then, switching from Hebrew to English, he proposed that foreign diplomats fly Mr. Arafat into exile, adding that his Cabinet would have to approve the offer if Mr. Arafat accepts it.
"It has got to be a one-way ticket. He would not be able to return," the Israeli leader said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell dismissed the offer, saying Mr. Arafat should not be forced out.
"We think that Chairman Arafat still has a role to play," Mr. Powell told ABC television. "Until he decides to leave the country, it seems to me we need to work with him where he is."
Israel has demolished most of Mr. Arafat's Ramallah compound and confined him and a few dozen aides to just two rooms.
Mr. Sharon said in announcing the offensive last week that he aims to "isolate" Mr. Arafat and prevent him from orchestrating attacks on Israel, but he promised the United States to refrain from harming the Palestinian leader or banishing him from the West Bank.
Some analysts suggested that yesterday's remark was Mr. Sharon's way of signaling a retreat from that promise.
Palestinians quickly rejected the offer and accused Mr. Sharon of scheming to kill Mr. Arafat.
"Under no circumstances will President Arafat accept going into exile," said Saeb Erekat, a member of his Cabinet.
Hard-liners in Mr. Sharon's government have long advocated ousting Mr. Arafat and encouraging other Palestinian figures to take his place.
But security officials warn that Mr. Arafat would continue serving as the Palestinian leader and could cause more trouble if allowed to trot the globe and drum up support for his people.
"I think Chairman Arafat abroad can do much more damage than when he's inside under siege," said one official.
Though Washington has voiced support for the Jewish state's offensive, Mr. Powell's remarks yesterday showed how far apart Israel and the United States are on Mr. Arafat.
Arab states have warned Israel that touching Mr. Arafat would ignite the region. Tens of thousands of Arabs have staged anti-Israel protests in Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the region in recent days.
In Lebanon, the Islamic militant Hezbollah group has hinted it might open a second front against Israel in order to support Palestinians. The group shelled a disputed area on Israel's northern border yesterday, drawing Israeli air strikes.
Israeli military officials said Hezbollah also fired two Katyusha rockets into the Jewish state for the first time since Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon two years ago.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday that Israel views the government in Beirut and also Syria, the main powerbroker in Lebanon, as responsible for the attack.
"We have this strange feeling that the Syrian leadership thinks this is a simple matter. It doesn't understand the depth of the danger. The Lebanese government thinks again it will be able to wash its hands of responsibility for this matter," Mr. Peres told reporters.
Israel already has mobilized 20,000 reservists to join the fighting in the West Bank and Gaza.
Some Israeli commanders were surprised at the extent of resistance Palestinian militants put up in Bethlehem, according to one military officer.
Khaled Abu-Bader, a leading activist in an armed group linked to Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction, said in Bethlehem: "We are determined to be victorious in this battle or to become martyrs."
But as tanks tore up the narrow streets of Bethlehem's Old City, dozens of gunmen fled to the Church of the Nativity, hoping Israeli troops would not enter such a significant Christian holy place.
The Rev. Amjad Sabbara, a Franciscan priest, said he asked priests and nuns to remain in the church in order to prevent Israeli troops from entering and killing the militants.
"We hope to have a solution to this situation by tomorrow. We cannot allow places of worship to be used as a battlefield," Father Sabbara said.
Bethlehem residents said the army killed eight persons in the town, including Yahya Daamseh, who was high on Israel's most-wanted list. But five of the dead were civilians.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide