- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank Israeli tanks tightened their chokehold on Nablus, the West Bank's biggest city, and battles raged yesterday at nearby Palestinian refugee camps.

The takeover of Nablus put six major West Bank cities and towns under Israeli control, with only two left unoccupied: Hebron and Jericho. But Israeli tanks, helicopter gunships and soldiers struggled to wipe out pockets of resistance and flush out hundreds of militants holed up in one of Christianity's most sacred sites, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Five Palestinians were killed yesterday, including three gunmen and a man who worked as the church's caretaker and bell ringer: Samir Ibrahim Salman, a Palestinian Christian. The 45-year-old man was shot in the chest while walking to the church, said hospital director Peter Koumry. Four Israeli troops also died.

Palestinians accused the Israelis of blowing open a metal back door leading to a courtyard in the ancient basilica, breaking a pledge not to damage the church, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. They said the troops fired inside, wounding three persons.

The Israeli military denied the accusation but prevented reporters from reaching the church to assess the assertions. Reporters have been ordered to leave all six West Bank towns seized by Israel.

Amid growing world concern that the tensions could spark a regional conflict, a European Union mission arrived and asked to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a request the Israelis swiftly denied.

After President Bush launched his new diplomatic overture, European Commission President Romano Prodi, who on Wednesday urged Washington to step aside to make room for a broader mediation effort, offered the EU's "full cooperation" to the United States and all other parties seeking to end the violence.

"I warmly welcome the statement of President Bush," Mr. Prodi said in a statement. "It is an expression of determination and leadership."

U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday, was given permission to visit the Palestinian leader. Mr. Sharon had initially turned down such a request by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Bush administration officials said Gen. Zinni would try to see Mr. Arafat today.

For the past week, Mr. Arafat has been in what amounts to Israeli custody, trapped by soldiers surrounding his office compound in the West Bank's commercial capital, Ramallah.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz came out publicly for the expulsion of Mr. Arafat from the West Bank. Declaring that Mr. Arafat supports terrorism, Gen. Mofaz told a news conference, "It's preferable that he would be outside."

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer promptly rebuked Gen. Mofaz. He said the military commander has a right to his opinions but must keep them to himself, "certainly after the government has made a decision."

Israel launched "Operation Defensive Shield" on March 29 to crush Palestinian militias that have carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, including seven suicide bombings in the past week.

The trigger was a March 27 attack at the start of the Passover holiday that killed 26 Israelis attending a Seder, a ritual meal, in a hotel. Since then, 78 Palestinians and 63 Israelis have been killed.

Israeli forces arrested more than 1,100 Palestinians as they swept into the major West Bank towns of Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Jenin, Tulkarm, Bethlehem and Nablus.

The invasion of Nablus began late Wednesday when dozens of tanks rolled into the northern city of 180,000. Gunmen took refuge in Nablus' old city and in four adjacent refugee camps, where alleys are too narrow for tanks.

Israeli gunfire killed a Palestinian man when he opened a window in his apartment in Nablus, Palestinian security officials said. Nablus resident Amar Yassin said more than 80 armored vehicles were deployed around the main square and soldiers took over high-rise buildings.

The heaviest fighting raged in the Jenin refugee camp. Israeli commandos moved house to house, helped by fire from helicopters and tanks.

Soldiers took over two buildings on the western edge of the camp, and militants surrounded the structures and exchanged fire, said Jamal Howeel of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia. Three gunmen were killed.

The militants used loudspeakers to urge the soldiers to surrender but their appeals went unanswered, he said.

At a nearby army command center, officers had an aerial photo of the camp pinned on the inside of a canvas tent. About 30 percent of the homes had been marked as having been searched or taken over by troops.

One Israeli commander described his definition of a successful raid. "When I get to every single spot in the refugee camp and we've killed a few, that's how I will know," Brig. Gen. Eyal Shlein said. "We are not leaving any escape routes."

Gunmen in the camp said they believed this was their last stand, judging by the tough army sweeps through other West Bank towns. Armed men had prepared large numbers of homemade bombs for the raid of Jenin, the seventh in 18 months of fighting.

In Bethlehem, army footage showed about a dozen gunmen surrendering as members of the International Committee of the Red Cross watched.

In Israel, President Moshe Katsav said a fence should be built between Israel and the West Bank to stop suicide bombers. Though it has approved a buffer zone in principle, the Israeli government has been hesitant to take steps that could be interpreted as drawing a border relinquishing most or all the West Bank, where Israel has about 130 settlements.

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