Israel Tanks Begin Ramallah Pullout
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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli tanks and armored vehicles began pulling out of parts of the West Bank city of Ramallah late Saturday. But in a resurgence of violence, a Palestinian gunman and an Israeli policeman died in a clash at a Gaza border crossing.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen heading out of some Ramallah neighborhoods, and Raanan Gissin, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman, confirmed some forces were redeploying to just outside the city.
``Any place that we’ve finished ... we pull out,″ Gissin said, noting troops would stay near Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters. Israel has said it will maintain its siege at the shell-shattered compound where the Palestinian leader is confined until he turns over suspects in the October killing of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
Dozens of tanks and APCs were seen leaving Ramallah toward Israeli military bases on the edges of the city, witnesses and Palestinian intelligence sources said. An Associated Press reporter saw more than 15 more tanks and armored personnel carriers leaving Ramallah on a main road.
The withdrawal is part of a wider move by Israel to scale back its 3-week-old military campaign in the West Bank. After leaving several Palestinian areas the past week, including the Jenin refugee camp, troops also were expected to pull back from the northern West Bank city of Nablus by Monday.
However, Israeli forces were expected to stay in the heart of Bethlehem until a standoff between soldiers and armed Palestinians holed up inside the Church of the Nativity ends. A Franciscan priest inside the church since the standoff began April 2 said Saturday that the last food supplies had run out.
``There is no food left in the church now for the Palestinians or the monks and nuns,″ said The Rev. Ibrahim Faltas. There was no running water and electricity was intermittent, he said.
In the Jenin refugee camp, fierce fighting ended more than a week ago, but 11 people have been wounded in the past two days by stepping on unexploded ordnance, or opening booby trapped doors that Palestinian gunmen intended for Israeli troops, the Jenin hospital said.
With the Palestinian gunmen either killed or arrested by Israeli forces, no one with knowledge of the booby traps is around to warn Palestinians returning to their homes.
``I went to my aunt’s house to get some things. When I opened the door, it exploded on me,″ said Ala al-Ratef, 15, whose face and right arm were blackened and burned.
Wael Omari, a Palestinian nurse who was part of a medical team going through the camp, injured his foot when he stepped on an explosive Saturday.
In a visit of the camp on Saturday, U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns described it as the scene of a ``terrible human tragedy.″
``What happened in Jenin camp has caused enormous suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians,″ said Burns, who called for urgent humanitarian assistance.
The scale of the death and destruction in the refugee camp remains a subject of bitter dispute. Israel says dozens of Palestinians were killed, most of them militants. Palestinian officials have estimated the death toll in the hundreds.
So far, 43 Palestinian bodies have been found in the camp, six of them women, children or elderly men, according to the Jenin hospital and other Palestinian sources in the city.
The U.N. Security Council voted Friday night to send a fact-finding team to Jenin. Both Israel and the Palestinians say they support the visit.
In West Bank violence, an apparent suicide bomber blew himself up Friday near the border between the West Bank town of Qalqilya and the Israeli town of Kfar Saba, the army said. Nobody else was hurt, the radio said.
Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank has been the focus of the Mideast fighting for the past three weeks, and the Gaza Strip has been largely calm. But in recent days, Gaza has heated up with violence.
On Saturday, a lone Palestinian charged a heavily fortified Israeli crossing point, killing an Israeli border policeman with gunfire and grenades before he was killed by return fire from an Israeli tank.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.
A day earlier, Israeli forces killed five Palestinians in confrontations in Gaza, and a Palestinian bomber blew himself up in an attack on an Israeli military checkpoint.
In a funeral procession in Gaza City for two of those killed Friday, hundreds of chanting Palestinians marched in the burial service for militants from the Islamic Jihad movement.
Sharon ``should expect all doors of hell to break loose,″ vowed one masked militant at the funeral. ``We are ready for martyrdom.″
Israel’s offensive was aimed at crushing the Palestinian militias behind deadly attacks inside Israel over the past 18 months.
It has captured or killed at least 15 Palestinians on its most wanted list, according to the findings of The AP, which questioned Palestinian security officials, militant groups, hospital workers and relatives of those on the list published in January by Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper.