- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK More than 100 Palestinians remained isolated inside the Church of the Nativity last night as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to agree on how to exile the most wanted among them.

At least 30 men inside the church are said by Israel to be terrorists who have planned or committed attacks on the Jewish state.

The Israelis have agreed to allow these suspected militia members to live in exile in Gaza or a third state, likely Italy, but the details of the plan remained under discussion last night.

"We want a peaceful resolution to this, and we expect it soon," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, who has served on Israel's negotiating team. "Soon could mean soon, or it could mean tomorrow."

American officials have made it clear to Israel they want the standoff now in its fifth week resolved before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with President Bush today.

Any agreement ending the standoff would likely include a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem, the last Palestinian city where soldiers remain following Israel's March 29 incursion into the West Bank.

Israeli forces remain just outside most West Bank cities and often enter to arrest suspected militants.

As talks dragged on yesterday, the people of Bethlehem flocked to hastily set up markets and shops during a brief lifting of a curfew, first imposed April 2.

The tense standoff at the Church of the Nativity has proven to be a disaster for both sides, with Palestinian gunmen abusing the church's sanctuary and Israeli troops ringing the ancient compound with heavy artillery.

At least 30 priests, monks and nuns from different Christian denominations are inside along with about 100 Palestinians, most of them civilians caught in the cross fire during an April 2 gunbattle between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

Religious officials and many Palestinians say they are staying to protect the sacred space. Israelis say they are hostages.

Under a plan crafted in part by American intelligence advisers, roughly 30 gunmen would surrender to Israeli authorities or, more likely, accept permanent exile in the Gaza Strip or another country.

Italy has offered to take some of the Palestinians, in large part because of its deep religious ties to the church, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Sources involved in the discussions say most of the suspected militants will go to Gaza, which is Palestinian territory but fenced off from Israel's mainland.

The Israelis say a dozen of the most wanted should go to Italy, while the Palestinians say that no more than a half-dozen should leave the region.

Both Mr. Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are personally involved in the decision-making, according to a variety of sources.

Mr. Sharon's son, Omri, who has frequently served as his father's unofficial emissary to the Palestinians, is said to be closely involved with the negotiations.

After the exile of these men is resolved, the remaining civilians and a group of peace activists inside the church compound would go free.

Three weeks ago, the Palestinians proposed a modified exile in Gaza, but the Israelis rejected it, saying that Palestinian prisons are too porous and have a history of freeing political prisoners.

U.S. intervention helped end the standoff in Ramallah last week, in which Israeli troops had invaded Mr. Arafat's compound and pinned him and scores of supporters in two buildings.

Elsewhere yesterday, three Palestinians, including a member of the Islamic militant group Hamas, died during clashes with Israeli troops in Gaza.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, said soldiers who opened fire from a tank Sunday, killing a Palestinian woman and two of her children, ages 4 and 6, were spooked by the sound of a tank tread coming loose.

The army initially said a mine blew up near the tank but retracted that after no traces of an explosion were found. The army said it regretted the deaths.

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