- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel began withdrawing to the outskirts of Ramallah in the West Bank yesterday as U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni began a new peace mission, but violence on both sides cast a pall over his prospects of brokering a cease-fire.
Nine Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting yesterday across the West Bank and Gaza Strip that spilled into Bethlehem's Manger Square, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
For the second time in a month, Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli tank, something Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon never managed in their 18 years of fighting with Israel.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. Zinni failed in two previous visits to arrange a truce and is back in the Middle East in the bloodiest phase of the conflict since it erupted nearly 18 months ago.
He held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late yesterday and was scheduled to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat today.
Though the timing of the Israeli pullback from Ramallah appeared tied to Gen. Zinni's arrival, both the United States and Europe said it was not enough.
"They [the Israelis] have talked about a full withdrawal, and that's what we want to see," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington.
"That's the kind of step that we have been urging them to take … complete withdrawal."
Israel, responding to a spree of Palestinian bombings and shootings, rushed thousands of troops and 150 tanks and armored vehicles into Ramallah earlier this week in the military's biggest offensive in decades.
The incursion was one of many military operations in a broader campaign against militants in Palestinian towns and refugee camps that has lasted more than two weeks.
In some places, such as Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, Israeli soldiers stayed for a few hours and left. In areas such as Bethlehem, troops have held Palestinian territory for days, conducting door-to-door searches for gunmen.
At least 170 Palestinians, including many unarmed civilians, have been killed in the sweep.
Mr. Sharon, who this week lost the support of one far-right faction in his coalition for not pressing harder on Palestinians, said yesterday he was redeploying troops to the outskirts of Ramallah.
"I can tell you that the government decided days ago that it would end the operation in Ramallah with the arrival of Zinni," said Zalman Shoval, one of Mr. Sharon's political advisers.
After nightfall, witnesses saw dozens of tanks heading out of Ramallah on at least two routes. Palestinian militiamen celebrated the tanks' departure with volleys of gunfire. But Palestinians said they would participate in cease-fire talks only after a broader Israeli withdrawal.
"There won't be … any meetings with any Israelis until they stop their aggression and withdraw from all the cities, including Bethlehem and Ramallah and cities in Gaza," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior aide to Mr. Arafat.
More-radical Palestinians pledged to continue attacks on Israel, which have caused at least 60 Israeli deaths so far this month, even if a truce is achieved.
"It's clear, based on his statements, that Zinni is a Zionist, not an honest broker," said Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas. "Any cease-fire he manages will not be binding on us."
Gen. Zinni, whose mission is open-ended, hopes to get Israelis and Palestinians on track with the Mitchell report, a blueprint drafted last year by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell to jump-start peace talks.
But his first task will be to halt the daily stream of bloodletting.
Yesterday, Israel killed nine Palestinians in clashes and in targeted missile strikes. Israeli authorities described seven of the men two in Ramallah and five in the Tulkarm area as armed militants.
Tanks enforced a curfew in Ramallah, where troops and roving bands of Palestinian militants exchanged occasional fire.
In Bethlehem, members of Mr. Arafat's Fatah group shot dead two Palestinians suspected of helping Israel track and kill militants.
The gunmen dragged their bodies through city streets and tried to hang one of them from a building on Manger Square.
Palestinian police, who arrived after the men had been killed, prevented the hanging.
Also in Bethlehem, an Israeli tank shell slammed into a church, showering shrapnel on a statue of the Virgin Mary, slicing off the hands and nose, a nun at the church said. Israel said it was investigating the incident.
"It's a very traumatic situation right now in Bethlehem," Mr. Arafat told reporters at his headquarters in Ramallah.
Earlier in the day, Palestinians set off a 150-pound bomb near an Israeli patrol in the Gaza Strip, tearing apart a tank and killing its three crew members.
"The explosion was so big that it damaged some of the Palestinian houses in the area," said Brig. Gen. Zvi Fogel, an Israeli commander in Gaza. Soldiers later wrecked homes near the site of the blast.


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