- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni met with Yasser Arafat at the Palestinian leader's tank-encircled headquarters yesterday, the bloodiest day of fighting since the beginning of the week-old Israeli military campaign.
At least 35 Palestinians, including the suspected mastermind of a Passover attack that triggered the incursion, died as gunmen and Israeli forces fought in Nablus, Tubas and Jenin in the West Bank. At least one Israeli soldier also died.
In advance of a planned visit to the region next week by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Gen. Zinni traveled to the West Bank town of Ramallah for a 90-minute meeting with Mr. Arafat at his battered, encircled compound.
Mr. Arafat has been confined to a few rooms in his headquarters by Israeli troops since March 29. Gen. Zinni was the first senior American official to meet with him during his confinement.
Mr. Arafat told Gen. Zinni that the Palestinians support a cease-fire negotiated last year by CIA Director George J. Tenet, according to his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas. Israel and the Palestinians have been at odds over the timetable for implementing the agreement.
Ramallah has been declared a closed military zone by Israel, and Israeli troops fired stun grenades from close range at about two dozen journalists who were outside Mr. Arafat's compound trying to cover the meeting.
[Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, a key aide to Mr. Arafat, said Israeli soldiers forced their way into his Ramallah home yesterday on the pretext of conducting a search, Reuters news agency reported. The Israeli army had no immediate comment.]
Meanwhile, Israeli troops and tanks pushed into another town in the northern West Bank yesterday, despite a strongly worded appeal by President Bush on Thursday to stop the offensive. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer vowed, "We are finishing the operation we started."
New violence on the northern border with Lebanon raised concerns that Israel could find itself bogged down on two fronts. The Lebanese government, trying to stem intensifying clashes along the frontier, said it seized a ready-to-fire Katyusha rocket and arrested nine Palestinian militants.
The day's heaviest fighting came in the northern West Bank town of Nablus, where smoke from burning vehicles and buildings filled the air as Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships fought pitched battles with hundreds of Palestinian gunmen. Houses in the Balata refugee camp and the winding alleyways of the casbah, or old city, were peppered with heavy machine-gun fire.
Israeli rockets rained on the city's eastern market district, destroying hundreds of shops and stalls, witnesses said. Gunmen at one point holed up in a small shampoo factory, which was demolished by rockets while civilians living nearby cowered in their homes.
Palestinian sources and Israeli TV reports said among the dead in Nablus was Nasser Awais, a regional leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian militia that has claimed responsibility for scores of shooting and bombing attacks against Israelis during the past 18 months of conflict.
In the town of Tubas, the scene of the latest Israeli incursion, Israeli troops trapped six Palestinian gunmen in a house and then riddled their hide-out with tank shells and missiles fired from helicopters, killing them all, witnesses said.
Later, Palestinian sources confirmed reports identifying the six as members of the militant group Hamas. One of them was Qais Idwan, whom Israel TV called the mastermind of a March 27 attack at a Seder, or ritual meal, at the start of Passover.
Israelis bulldozed the building afterward and made people living nearby leave, witnesses said. Troops left the town soon afterward, they said.
Among at least 35 Palestinians killed in fighting yesterday was a 14-year-old girl who had gone out onto her balcony in Tubas to look around. After the Israelis left, Palestinian security officials said three suspected collaborators with Israel, who had been held in the local jail for the past several months, were shot dead by Palestinian police.
The Israeli military also retrieved the bodies of five men in Bethlehem, apparently killed by fellow Palestinians as suspected informers for Israel.
In the northern West Bank town of Jenin and the adjoining refugee camp where three Israeli soldiers had died a day earlier shells and rockets trapped hundreds of families in their homes and prevented the evacuation of dozens of wounded, witnesses said. At least four Palestinians were killed, the Palestinians said.
In addition to the two top militants killed yesterday, Israel made an apparent attempt on the life of a leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group. Witnesses said an Israeli helicopter fired missiles on a car in the town of Hebron driven by Ziyad Shuweiki, but he escaped.
Five bystanders, including an 8-year-old boy, were injured, the witnesses said. The Israeli army had no immediate comment.
At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of Christianity's holiest sites, a standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen inside continued into a fourth day. Four of about 60 priests trapped in the church came out yesterday and left Bethlehem under Israeli escort, the military said.
In the Gaza Strip, some 10,000 supporters of Hamas rallied in the Jabaliya refugee camp. Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder, said the group would not stop attacks on Israelis.
International pressure was building on the Israelis to end their offensive. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution early yesterday calling on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities and towns "without delay."
However, Israeli officials and newspaper editorials noted that Mr. Bush did not demand an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank and did not provide a timeline.
"From the outset, it was said that we will be in the territories only for a few weeks," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel's Channel Two. "I think that the difference between what Bush demanded and the government decided is not great."

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