- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank Israeli troops prepared to begin withdrawing from two small towns this morning following a day of fierce fighting involving house-to-house combat that left more than 100 Palestinians dead.
At Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, fire broke out in the compound during a gunbattle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians holed up inside, prompting Christian leaders to call on Israel to leave the biblical city. The confrontation appeared to be straining delicate relations between Israel and the Vatican.
In Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, dozens of gunmen surrendered to Israeli troops while scores more lay wounded on blankets on the floor of a mosque. Some of the men were dying, and doctors lacking even the most basic supplies operated on others without anesthetics.
Israel's Defense Ministry said last night that troops were preparing for a staggered withdrawal from the towns of Qalqiliya and Tulkarm beginning early today, but no specific time was given for the pullout. Troops would continue to maintain a cordon around the cities, the ministry said in a statement.
On the 11th day of the offensive launched in response to a wave of suicide bombings, Israeli helicopters also pounded the Jenin refugee camp with missiles, and bulldozers flattened homes as gunmen retreated. Israeli officials estimated more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the camp in recent days.
Israeli Brig. Gen. Eyal Shline said the armed men "seem to have decided to fight to the last, to make the battle as bloody as possible." Several, he said, blew themselves up in suicide attacks on soldiers.
Jamal Abdel Salam, a resident and activist in the Islamic militant Hamas group, said army bulldozers flattened homes, and dozen of houses were destroyed.
By early afternoon, Israeli forces controlled almost the entire camp, the army said. The military said about 150 men put down their weapons and emerged early yesterday, but Abdel Salam said only women, children and the elderly left the camp. The militants were ready to fight to the death, he said.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the camp yesterday, the military said.
In Nablus, smoke rose from the Old City, a densely populated maze of stone buildings and narrow streets. Army officials said troops controlled about half the Old City and dozens of gunmen surrendered yesterday.
In Bethlehem, Israeli troops ringing the Church of the Nativity exchanged fire with some of the more than 200 armed Palestinians who have been holed up inside for seven days.
The Vatican said it was following the situation with "extreme apprehension" and trying to verify the cause of a fire in the church. It reminded Israel of a 1993 pledge not to interfere at holy places and warned that it was hearing information which, if true, "would lead to the aggravation of an already dramatic situation."
Some church officials, including a Franciscan friar who briefed senior Vatican officials on the situation, were less diplomatic, angrily accusing Israel of provoking the unprecedented violence around one of Christianity's holiest shrines.
A senior Israeli army officer said two Israeli border policemen, wounded when they came under fire from Palestinian gunmen inside the compound, had thrown a smoke bomb that sparked the blaze.
But the Rev. David Jaeger of the office of the Custodian of Catholic sites in the Holy Land called the pre-dawn clash and fire an Israeli attack that violates "every canon of human decency. It shreds the credibility of the people who launched it."
The fire burned in a second-floor meeting hall above the courtyard of St. Catherine's Church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. The blaze destroyed a piano, chairs, altar cloths and ceremonial cups.
Palestinians in the compound said an Israeli soldier shot and killed a Palestinian policeman, 23-year-old Khaled Syam, as he went to put out the fire.
The senior Israeli officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Palestinians signaled gunmen in a bell tower to fire on two Israeli border police manning a nearby rooftop lookout. Gunmen inside the compound fired rifles and threw hand grenades, and soldiers returning fire killed a Palestinian, he said.
A Catholic missionary news agency in Rome quoted the Rev. Giovanni Battistelli, the Franciscan's top representative in the Holy Land, as disputing the Israeli version: "Nobody opened fire from inside the basilica compound. It was an attack carried out by Israeli forces."
Israeli troops and tanks rumbled into the West Bank on March 29, beginning a hunt for weapons, explosives and militants who have terrorized the country with suicide bombings and other attacks.
More than 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since then, including 500 to 600 fugitives, among them 70 to 80 involved in planning attacks on Israelis, Israeli military officials said. Troops have confiscated 2,000 rifles and uncovered 15 labs for making explosives, the officials said.

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