Arafat Condemns Jerusalem Bombing
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned a Jerusalem suicide bombing, trying to meet U.S. condition for a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, as Israeli forces Saturday moved into more West Bank villages and shelled Palestinian offices.
Meanwhile, Palestinians surveyed the devastation in some of the areas hardest hit in Israel’s two-week-old West Bank offensive. One man in Nablus said eight relatives, including a pregnant woman, were crushed when Israeli bulldozers demolished a building near their home. Israel said it was unaware of the deaths.
Powell, who is visiting Israel on a mission to bring about a halt to the violence, has said he would not meet Arafat until the Palestinian leader condemned terrorism and Friday’s bombing, which killed six people in a crowded outdoor market in Jerusalem. He canceled a meeting with Arafat set for Saturday.
``We are condemning strongly all the attacks which are targeting civilians from both sides and especially the attack that took place against Israeli citizens yesterday in Jerusalem,″ Arafat’s statement, in Arabic, said. It was released on the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Powell said the Bush administration was reviewing Arafat’s statement Saturday to see if it was enough to allow a Powell-Arafat meeting.
Powell has indicated that if Arafat made a sufficient condemnation, they could meet Sunday in the Ramallah offices where the Palestinian leader has been confined by Israeli troops since the West Bank offensive began.
Sporadic fighting took place in several West Bank areas Saturday. The fiercest was in Nablus, the area’s largest city, where seven Israeli tanks shelled the local Palestinian government complex, witnesses said. They said tank shells punched big holes the building.
Palestinians allege many civilians have been killed in the Israeli operation, launched March 29 to wipe out militant networks in the West Bank after a series of suicide bombings. Israel has said it has tried to avoid civilian casualties.
Powell is pressing for a quick end to the campaign, a cease-fire and a fresh start to peace negotiations. On Saturday, he issued a statement calling on Israeli forces in the West Bank to ``exercise the utmost restraint and discipline and refrain from the excessive use of force.″
President Bush has demanded Israel withdraw from the West Bank ``without delay,″ but troops remained firmly encamped in Nablus and the other three main Palestinian cities: Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the campaign will continue until Palestinian militias behind attacks on Israelis are crushed.
Israeli forces pulled out of the town of Dahariyeh on Saturday, but the army said tanks moved into the villages of Burkin and Arabe, both near Jenin. They also took over Bier Nabala _ near Ramallah _ and Beit Eba, el-Baidan and Beit Wazan, near Nablus. Witnesses said troops occupied Hashimiyah, outside Jenin, but the army would not confirm the report.
In Burkin, soldiers used loudspeakers to warn the town’s 5,000 residents not to leave their homes. Residents said about 75 families from the Jenin refugee camp _ a militant stronghold _ were in the town.
Powell on Saturday met with humanitarian groups and with Christian leaders, who gave him a proposal that called for a three-day truce in Bethlehem, where a standoff continued at the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s holiest sites.
Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers were circling the church compound, and soldiers made calls through the night for the 200 armed Palestinians holed up inside to surrender.
Under the Christians’ truce plan, the Israeli army would withdraw from the city, and the Palestinian Authority would collect the militants’ weapons and allow the gunmen to go home. The Israeli Foreign Ministry would not comment on the proposal.
Israel and the United States differ over how to deal with Arafat, whom Sharon has rejected as a partner in any dialogue on peace.
``One cannot reach peace with Mr. Arafat,″ Sharon said in an interview Friday with the CBS Evening News. ``I think that, because of him, we cannot reach any settlement. Therefore, I believe that there should have been an effort to find somebody with whom it will be possible to do so.″
The Israeli campaign in the West Bank has included mass arrests, gunbattles and the demolition of homes and buildings deemed to be militant bases, hide-outs or explosives laboratories.
In Nablus, Mahmoud Shobi, 35, said the compound of his brother and father was toppled on April 5 when Israeli bulldozers demolished an empty building next door.
Mahmoud Shobi said the demolition killed his brother Samer Shobi, 49, his pregnant wife, Nabela, 40, and the couple’s three sons, Abdelallah, 8, Azam, 6, and Anas, 4. He said it also killed his 85-year-old father, Omar, and his two sisters, Fatamah, 55, and Abeer, 36. He said there were no militants in the compound.
The bodies _ found late Friday and early Saturday _ were taken to the Nablus hospital. Officials there confirmed the deaths.
The Israeli army said it was unaware of the deaths of the Shobi family. Military officials said the only building demolished April 5 in the neighborhood was an explosives lab, and the military knew nothing about the collapse of the Shobi family compound.
The military said it was ``unlikely″ the demolition work collapsed the family’s residence because an army engineer ensured surrounding buildings would not be in danger. People in the neighborhood were also warned about it, the army said.
Mahmoud Shobi did not believe the Israeli explanation. ``They have to know they killed people, but the Israelis didn’t care,″ he said.
He said it took days to find his family members because he couldn’t go out during the strict curfew and phone lines were cut. He said he had assumed his family was safe in a school where Israeli authorities had sent residents until fierce fighting in the city died down a few days ago.
Israel has said more than 4,000 Palestinians have been detained, including hundreds of suspected militants, and that large caches of weapons and explosives have been seized. But suicide bombings continued.
In Friday’s blast, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, killing six other people and wounding dozens. The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, called the bombing punishment for Israel’s military offensive. ``If Israel thinks that after what they did in Jenin and Nablus they will not be punished, they are mistaken,″ Yassin said.
Israel’s military has flatly denied Palestinian allegations that the military killed hundreds of civilians in Jenin and was trying to hide the bodies.
Army officials have estimated that about 100 Palestinians were killed in the camp. The army has not allowed Palestinian emergency services to enter the camp to verify the deaths.