- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

JERUSALEM Armored Israeli forces drove into three more West Bank towns yesterday and maintained their siege in Bethlehem, ringing one of Christendom's holiest sites as scores of Palestinians fired on them from inside the Church of the Nativity.
Egypt anounced that it was cutting direct contacts with Israel in response to the attacks while governments from Canada to Asia demanded that Israel call off its 6-day-old campaign to cleanse the West Bank of suicide bombers and their backers.
In Washington, the State Department said U.S. agents had rescued a group of Americans and Europeans who became trapped in Bethlehem by the fighting.
On Israel's northern border, Hezbollah guerrillas fired missiles into Israel from Lebanon for the second day, prompting fears among Israeli officials that they are trying to open a second front while the army is preoccupied in the West Bank.
Syria, the de facto power in the region, announced that it is moving 20,000 of its troops now in Lebanon away from the border, where they are vulnerable to Israeli retaliation.
Two columns of tanks rumbled into the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank last night, according to residents. Armored Israeli forces had entered the towns of Salfit and Jenin much earlier in the day, meeting little resistance.
Israeli forces meanwhile kept Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, under siege in his headquarters in Ramallah, where he has been pinned down since Friday.
Mr. Arafat, offered a "one-way ticket" to exile by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, told Al Jazeera television early yesterday that he would stay in Ramallah "until victory or martyrdom."
Israel has reoccupied towns and villages across the West Bank since Friday, prompted by a suicide bombing in Netanya that killed 24 Israelis at the start of the Jewish Passover holiday.
"Ariel Sharon is dismantling the Palestinian Authority; that is his endgame," Arafat adviser Saeb Erekat told The Washington Times in a telephone interview.
"He has destroyed the water, electricity, security infrastructure, documents, maps and all things this government has put together in eight years," Mr. Erekat said. "That is Sharon's way of fighting terror. He is pushing us back 50 years so we don't establish a Palestinian state."
Israel's campaign, which it says is intended to end suicide attacks and isolate Mr. Arafat, has raised fears around the world that other countries could be dragged into the conflict.
Egypt's Cabinet announced it was severing direct contacts with Israel's government but left vital diplomatic channels open.
Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel, and both have maintained diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in November 2000 to protest Israel's handling of the Palestinian uprising, but Israel kept its ambassador in Cairo.
In Bethlehem, an ambulance was permitted to enter the city for the first time since the fighting began. The bodies of three civilians and two wounded men were removed from the area near Manger Square to a nearby hospital.
Israeli paratroopers moved street by street, fingers on triggers, peering down alleys, Reuters news agency reported. Water gushed from pipes supplying houses, apparently shot up in fighting. Cars crushed by tanks or burned by shelling littered the streets.
About 200 Palestinians, many of them armed, remained in the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, after taking refuge there Tuesday.
A State Department official said nine Americans were rescued from a hotel in Bethlehem by special agents of the diplomatic security service assigned to the consulate general. The officials said the agents also rescued four Britons and one Japanese citizen and helped Italian authorities remove to safety six of their nationals.
The operation took place with the support of the Israeli Defense Forces, the official said.
Earlier, Britain's Foreign Office said its consulate general had sent vehicles to Bethlehem to remove seven British nationals after negotiations with the army.
Comedian Jeremy Hardy, one of the seven, said two of the Britons were injured Monday when they were fired upon by Israeli soldiers during a peace march in the nearby town of Beit Jala.
Loud explosions and gunbattles shook Jenin as dozens of tanks advanced from three sides and helicopter gunships fired on a refugee camp outside the northern West Bank town. Israel says the camp harbors militants involved in the wave of suicide bombings that prompted the Israeli campaign.
Three Palestinian gunmen, a civilian man and woman, and a 13-year-old boy were killed in the Jenin area, according to Palestinian security sources. Four Israeli soldiers were hurt.
West Jerusalem was eerily quiet as an unseasonal rain pelted empty streets and Jews stayed inside to commemorate the end of the Passover holiday with a traditional day of fasting and prayer.
In predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, nearly 3,000 demonstrators gathered to protest the West Bank incursion. Michael Tazani, an American lawyer who works with the Palestinian Authority, said Israeli tanks penned in the demonstrators and fired tear gas at them.
At least 1,153 Palestinians and 404 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian revolt began in September 2000.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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