- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

JERUSALEM Fires burned at the site of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity last night during an intense firefight between Palestinians and Israelis only hours after the one-month isolation of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah ended.
Flames shot out of a section of the church compound adjacent to the traditional site of Jesus' birth as the battle raged. Those inside, trapped by Israeli troops for the past month, managed to douse the flames shortly after the gunfire subsided.
But the shooting and flames in Bethlehem shattered the optimism of a few hours earlier, when the five-month siege of Mr. Arafat's compound in Ramallah, about 30 miles away, ended.
The Palestinians transferred a half-dozen murder suspects to British custody under a deal brokered by President Bush.
Israeli troops then withdrew from the immediate area of Mr. Arafat's compound and the Palestinian leader appeared live on television.
Having learned of the battle in Bethlehem, he pounded his fist in anger and shouted at reporters in halting English:
"The Nativity Church, can you imagine what is happening this is a holy, sacred place, not only for Christians, but for the Christians and Muslims," Mr. Arafat said on CNN.
Israel said Palestinians inside the church deliberately set three separate fires, apparently believing that Israeli troops were about to storm the compound in an apocalyptic end to the monthlong standoff there.
"The fire had nothing to do with Israelis. It was set by the Palestinian [militants]," Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN.
As many as 200 Palestinians have been sheltering in the church since April 2. They include about 30 Palestinian fighters wanted by Israel on terrorism charges.
In Ramallah, the six Palestinian suspects turned over to the British are accused by Israel of assassinating a government official and financing terrorism.
They were taken in an armored convoy to a jail in Jericho, 22 miles away, where they will remain under British and, eventually, American guard.
Mr. Arafat, who has been confined to Ramallah since December, is now free to travel through the ravaged West Bank, Gaza Strip and internationally.
But Palestinian sources said the 72-year-old Palestinian leader will not leave the heavily shelled compound until Israeli troops and tanks have completely withdrawn from Palestinian-controlled land in the West Bank.
Last night, the soldiers were seen clearing the area they have occupied since March 29, packing up sandbags, equipment and military gear. A full withdrawal could be completed by this morning.
Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat both agreed last week to the plan to end the Ramallah standoff after it was proposed by Mr. Bush.
That leaves only Bethlehem under active Israeli siege. But soldiers and tanks remain in several areas of the West Bank, manning checkpoints and monitoring developments from the outskirts of Jenin, Nablus and several smaller towns.
The army announced it had pulled out of Hebron yesterday, ending a two-day operation during which it detained 118 Palestinians for questioning.
Israeli troops yesterday made a brief incursion into the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafia, just above the Egyptian border, after a Palestinian set off an explosion near a patrolling tank.
Palestinian witnesses say the Israelis fired machine guns and shells at a nearby neighborhood, killing four, including a 2-year-old girl and a deaf man, in their homes.
The Israeli Defense Forces acknowledged the incident but did not disclose casualties.
Sources in Ramallah said that Mr. Arafat, once he leaves his compound, wants to visit the Jenin refugee camp, the site of the most severe fighting of the past month's Israeli military operation.
Palestinian leaders continue to accuse Israeli forces of committing war crimes in the camp, even though the Jenin hospital yesterday had confirmed only 56 deaths in eight days of pitched fighting, far short of the "hundreds" cited earlier.
However, it is not clear how quickly the Palestinian leader will get there.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Mr. Arafat, indicated last night that the Palestinian leader would not leave the compound, "his headquarters," until all Israeli troops leave the West Bank, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council.
He said Mr. Arafat was ready to tour the territories and see the areas where Palestinians have clashed with Israeli troops over the last five weeks.
There was also speculation last night that he will travel abroad to meet with Arab leaders. The Israeli government apparently has promised Mr. Arafat's advisers that he will be permitted to return, a change from the threat of exile that hung over the Palestinian leader's aborted attempt to attend an Arab League summit in Beirut at the end of March.
The Ramallah compound, a fortified former Israeli police installation, has become one of the most familiar sites in the West Bank in the last month, even though access to the area is tightly restricted by soldiers.
Television crews with long lenses have taken up positions just beyond a perimeter of flattened cars and Israeli tanks and have been closely monitoring every mortar shell and diplomatic intervention during the past 32 days.
Last night, with Israeli troops gone from the immediate area, television crews were allowed inside.
As many as 200 people are said to be inside the compound, including senior Palestinian officials, police officers, and dozens of U.S. and European peace activists who had broken into the compound to volunteer as human shields.
Four of those removed yesterday are accused of participating in the October killing of Israel's ultranationalist tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi. They were convicted during a makeshift Palestinian trial last week.
Israel has rejected those convictions and jail sentences, saying the Oslo accords give the Jewish state the right to try suspected terrorists.
A fifth prisoner is Ahmed Saadat, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical group that has admitted planning the assassination in retaliation for the murder of its own leader.
The group nominally accepts Mr. Arafat's leadership of the Palestinian people but has criticized him harshly for agreeing to the deal.
Also transferred last night was Mr. Arafat's financial adviser, Fouad Shoubaki, whom the Israelis contend masterminded a shipment of weapons from Iran and authorized payments from the Palestinian Authority to terrorist groups such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

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