- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, assisted by U.S. and European diplomats, moved closer to a resolution to the monthlong standoff at the Church of the Nativity last night, as another Palestinian was killed inside the compound by an Israeli sniper.
In a move shadowing the groundbreaking accord that last week ended the siege at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, a British negotiator received a list of 123 Palestinians inside the church from a priest who exited the ancient basilica compound.
The diplomat then was expected to hand the list to the Israeli army, a senior EU official said, then four of the men most wanted by Israel and who are thought to be inside would be transferred to international guard within the coming days, Agence France-Presse reported.
The White House last week crafted the compromise that ended Mr. Arafat's imprisonment in Ramallah. That arrangement in which a half-dozen suspects in killings were transferred to a Palestinian prison under British guard is likely to be adapted to the Church of the Nativity impasse.
The two sides are apparently near an agreement to allow a dozen most-wanted Palestinian militia members holed up inside the church to surrender or accept exile in a foreign country.
When the details are settled, scores of religious figures and Palestinian civilians will be liberated after more than a month in increasingly squalid conditions inside one of Christendom's holiest sites.
The flurry of activity last night contrasted with the fitful efforts made over the past few weeks and, according to religious leaders, has been long overdue. The negotiators and advisers involved in efforts to end the standoff yesterday included emissaries from Britain, the Vatican and the CIA, participants said.
Bethlehem's Mayor Hanna Nasser said he expected a deal to end the siege within 24 hours.
"There is no reason not to suppose that an agreement won't be reached tonight or no later than Sunday morning," Mr. Nasser told Agence France-Presse last night.
However, Reuters news agency reported that Palestinian gunmen inside the church were preventing other people from leaving, dimming the prospects for an imminent end to the siege.
"The gunmen in the church are running the show, and the people are definitely being held hostage," a neutral source told the British wire service. "The people inside are getting very agitated, and it could get worse, even apocalyptic."
A gunman inside the church told Reuters by phone that "the members of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade do not want people on the outside making decisions for them." The Brigade is an Islamic militant group linked to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement.
The Israeli army says most of the gunmen inside the church belong to the Brigade and the others to Islamic Jihad or Hamas.
The standoff at the sacred basilica began April 2 when a group of Palestinian militants took refuge in the compound to escape Israeli incursion into West Bank towns. It has grown increasingly desperate as food and water stocks inside the compound have run low and sporadic shooting in and around the church has become more frequent.
The man shot yesterday, during the weekend of Easter in the Orthodox Christian faiths, was the seventh fatality since the standoff began.
Tensions were further stoked by an explosion near Manger Square yesterday that wounded a young boy. The army and witnesses said the blast occurred at a bomb factory inside a clinic and was not connected to the church standoff.
With Mr. Arafat released from his confinement in Ramallah earlier last week, the Church of the Nativity has captured international attention. Manger Square is the only active conflict on the West Bank, although the Israeli army early yesterday briefly returned to the West Bank town of Tulkarm but made no arrests.
Under the agreement most likely to be reached, nearly a dozen Palestinian suspects will be either exiled to a nearby nation or transferred to the same Jericho prison where British jailers are already guarding Palestinians from Mr. Arafat's Ramallah compound.
Jordan is one frequently mentioned option, although the governments of Cyprus, Greece and Italy also have offered to accept the men, sources said.
The Israelis rejected an earlier Palestinian proposal to release the men in the Gaza Strip Palestinian territory that is completely fenced off from Israel proper saying that the jails are "a charade" and the men should not be allowed to go free.
If all sides accept the agreement, it would end an increasingly tense impasse that has imperiled the ancient church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
On Wednesday, a fire destroyed the Greek Orthodox dormitory, triggering the renewed public ire of the religious orders that share the compound. Each side blames the other for starting it.
Israeli bullets have pitted the exterior of the church and statues in the courtyard, while the monthlong stay by as many as 200 people has taken its toll on the once-peaceful interior. People who have left the church compound describe scenes of total devastation, with gaunt and desperate men eating, sleeping and passing time in the sacred space.
Israeli soldiers have been slipping in provisions for the friars and nuns, but they say that it's likely that the armed elements inside have been benefiting as well.
Religious officials who are in touch with their representatives inside refuse to comment on their well-being, other than to say that the situation is "dire."
The Israelis estimate that 200 people are now inside the Church of the Nativity, including 30 to 40 religious figures, a dozen pro-Palestinian foreign activists and about 30 militia members wanted for their role in terrorist attacks. Several dozen more are thought to be armed militia members, security forces or policemen.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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