Israel to Stay in 2 West Bank Towns
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that Israeli troops would press ahead with a campaign against Palestinian militants in two major West Bank towns despite U.S. pleas for a full withdrawal. Israel also grabbed a senior aide to Yasser Arafat whom Sharon says was behind suicide bombings.
But Sharon told President Bush in a telephone conversation Monday that Israeli troops would, within a week, pull out of Jenin and Nablus, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Sharon told CNN that Israeli forces would remain indefinitely in Ramallah, where they surround Palestinian leader Arafat’s headquarters, and in Bethlehem until Palestinians occupying one of Christianity’s holiest sites surrender for trial or exile.
``Altogether, we are on our way out,″ Sharon said of the campaign against Palestinian militants that began March 29.
Early Tuesday Israeli tanks re-entered Tulkarem, one of two towns evacuated April 9. Witnesses said tanks rolled in from four directions, covered by attack helicopters. Israeli military sources said the incursion was aimed at making arrests, not reoccupying the town.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, continued his efforts to calm regional violence, visiting Lebanon and Syria. He also supported an Israeli proposal for a U.S.-led Mideast peace conference, saying it would be ``a way to get the parties together and talking.″
Powell said the United States would not host the conference, which Sharon wants Arafat excluded from.
Arafat said Monday he conditionally accepted the Israeli proposal but, in interview with Fox News, did not address Sharon’s demand for his exclusion.
But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat criticized the idea and said Israel should accept an peace initiative calling for full peace in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
U.S. officials said the next Powell-Arafat meeting would be Wednesday. On Monday, members of Powell’s delegation met with Palestinian negotiators in the West Bank town of Jericho.
The Israeli withdrawal was far from the complete rollback that the American government is seeking. The two exceptions are Bethlehem, where Israeli forces are engaged in a standoff with more than 200 armed men in the Church of the Nativity, and Ramallah.
Sharon said Israeli forces will not leave Bethlehem until the standoff is over and will not leave Ramallah until those behind the October assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi are handed over.
In response, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said, ``We don’t plan to deal with these conditions. He must leave every city that has been reoccupied without any conditions. We are not going to bargain with the Israelis over every town and village.″
On Monday, Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinians inside the Bethlehem church compound, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
Two Palestinian policemen _ one seriously wounded several days ago and the other reportedly suffering a nervous breakdown _ surrendered, witnesses said. They were the first Palestinians to do so during the 12-day standoff.
Sharon told CNN Israel and the United States agree that the armed men inside the church must surrender and those deemed to be connected with terrorism should be tried in Israel or deported, perhaps with British assistance, to an unspecified country. The Palestinians reject that idea.
Pope John Paul II on Monday called the Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, who runs the besieged church. Faltas told The Associated Press the call was ``a message from the pope to support and encourage us,″ and the pope ``thanked us for our deep steadfastness and courage.″
Meanwhile, in Ramallah, elite Israeli troops seized Marwan Barghouti, who Israel says leads the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade responsible for Friday’s suicide bombing in a Jerusalem market that killed six people plus the woman bomber.
An elite Israeli force searching for militants captured Barghouti, 41, at the house of Fatah official Ziad Abu Ain, who also was detained, West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub said. No shots were fired, Israel Radio said.
Israel accuses Barghouti, sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Arafat, of direct involvement in nine different attacks that have killed 13 Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk.
In a statement, the military said Barghouti, ``as part of his work ... received large budgets from local and foreign groups, including (funds) authorized by the signature of Yasser Arafat.″
Barghouti is head of the Tanzim, part of Arafat’s Fatah organization, and ``was considered the commander and guide of the al Aqsa Brigades, which are blamed for a large number of deadly terrorist attacks in which dozens of Israelis were killed and hundreds injured,″ the military said.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Barghouti turned Tanzim into ``the most murderous of the terrorist organizations committing most of the recent attacks against Israel, attacks of all types, but principally suicide attacks including female bombers, shootings and bombings.″
Sharon cited Barghouti’s arrest in explaining the importance of the military campaign.
``Just imagine if we had withdrawn one day earlier and he would have been free and he’d be able to continue,″ he said.
Barghouti and his nephew, Ahmed, were given to security forces for interrogation, the army said. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told CNN that Marwan Barghouti will be tried in Israel and ``it will be basically open.″
Rajoub warned against harming Marwan Barghouti.
``Killing or humiliating him will bring catastrophes for Israel and will expand the circle of violence,″ he said.
Also in Ramallah, Israeli forces arrested two leaders of the militant Hamas, Jamal Tawil and Fayez Abu Wardeh, Palestinians said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
In the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, medics drove through rubble-strewn alleys Monday searching for bodies. It might take days to determine accurately how many Palestinians died in the fiercest battle of Israel’s offensive.
Israel and the Palestinians have argued over who will retrieve the bodies _ part of their dispute over what happened during the weeklong battle. Palestinian officials initially alleged troops killed hundreds of people, including many civilians, in the camp.
Israel estimated about 100 people were killed, most of them gunmen. Soldiers said Sunday they found 40 bodies.
Sharon told CNN he believes casualties in Jenin were in the ``few dozens″ and called claims of a massacre a ``lie.″
``There were very hard battles there, and I think the Israeli forces, not like any other armed forces being involved in a very hard battle, were very careful not to hurt civilians,″ Sharon said. ``We don’t have anything to hide there.″
Israel Radio said 14 bodies were found Monday, but only seven were removed because some camp areas remain booby-trapped. Foul smells rose from beneath debris, and some residents have tried digging with their hands to check for people or animals.
Dr. Waiel Kaddam, a Palestinian Red Crescent doctor who was inside the camp, confirmed seven bodies were collected. Medics, he said, were allowed only in one part of the camp, were not allowed to take pictures or film the scene, and lacked equipment needed to get to bodies.
``At the moment, it is very, very difficult,″ Kaddam said. ``It seems that the bodies that we have to move with our hands are under a lot of rubble, and some bodies have ammunition around them.″