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Arafat, U.S. Envoy Discuss Standoff

April 22, 2002

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ While an Israeli army bulldozer crushed cars in the parking lot outside, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met with a U.S. envoy in his besieged office Monday to discuss the standoff there and at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

The armed standoffs have persisted for three weeks and neither appears close to a settlement. Until they are resolved, there is little hope for a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Gunfire exchanges were heard again Monday at the Church of the Nativity, where an Anglican envoy said the situation was worsening steadily. The shrine is built at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

In new violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, five Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed Monday.

Israel’s army said a unit came under fire between the northern West Bank villages of Talouza and Assira al-Shamaliya. A soldier and two Hamas militants were killed, the army said.

One of the militants was identified as Taher Nasser, 28, a leader of the Hamas military wing in the Nablus area. Israel says he was wanted for direct responsibility in attacks on Israelis, including the Dec. 12 ambush of a bus that killed 10 Israelis.

Less than a mile from Arafat’s compound, masked gunmen pulled three suspected Palestinian informers for Israel out of their cars in a downtown square and shot them with automatic rifles. One man later died. The gunmen said they were from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Israeli troops have left most Palestinian cities in the West Bank after an incursion lasting more than three weeks. In their wake, however, Palestinian Authority government ministries are in shambles, Palestinians said.

Israeli troops ripped out computer hard drives, seized documents and trashed offices not related to Israel’s search for militants, Palestinians said.

Israelis took the medical records of thousands of patients from the Health Ministry, the student database from a computer at the Education Ministry and the car registration list from the Transportation Ministry, Palestinians said.

The troops also blew up a safe in the Education Ministry and took $8,000 from it, said Salah Soubani, director of information at the Education Ministry.

``Our ministries were nearly completely destroyed,″ said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. ``This was not done as a mistake in one or two places. This was done in every single ministry.″

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the Education Ministry ``is not necessarily where the terrorists will be found, but it was a major source of incitement.″

``We had to gather this material for the purpose of exposing the extent and the virulent nature of the incitement,″ which encouraged suicide bombers, Gissin said.

The American envoy, State Department official William Burns, met Arafat for about two hours at the Palestinian leader’s compound, where about 300 aides, security guards and foreign volunteers have been confined to several rooms by Israeli troops since March 29.

As Burns met Arafat, an Israeli bulldozer destroyed several cars parked outside and began building a rampart, said Netta Golan, an Israeli-Canadian activist in the compound. Burns came out to see what was going on before resuming the meeting, she said.

Burns and Arafat discussed the standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem, truce prospects and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, according to Palestinian and U.S. officials.

The Palestinians said they will not begin truce talks until Israeli forces leave all Palestinian-run areas in the West Bank. Israel said it will lift the blockades in Ramallah and Bethlehem once gunmen holed up there surrender.

Israel is demanding Arafat hand over five suspects in October’s assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister as well as the alleged mastermind of a large arms shipment to the Palestinian Authority intercepted by Israel. Arafat has refused, saying the six will face trial in Palestinian courts.

There’s growing speculation Israeli forces might try to break in and seized the wanted men. Israeli military commentator Alex Fishman wrote that Israeli officials ``have begun to scatter hints about an upcoming infiltration of the compound, the removal of Arafat, sending him away and capturing wanted men.″

Palestinians say Sharon first intended to destroy Palestinian infrastructure with the military incursion and now is attempting to undermine the Palestinian Authority and prospects for a Palestinian state.

However, Israeli officials close to Sharon said the government was carefully weighing the implications of storming Arafat’s refuge.

On the outskirts of Ramallah, West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub gave a tour of his hilltop headquarters, which were badly damaged in the Israeli offensive, and said he would not resume security coordination with Israel.

Such coordination is fundamental to U.S. plans for brokering a truce and guiding the sides back to peace talks.

``The Israelis have succeeded in creating a sea of blood and hatred,″ said Rajoub.

Also Monday, gunfire erupted in the area of the Church of the Nativity and white smoke rose in the vicinity of the adjacent Manger Square, possibly from smoke grenades. Each side accused the other of firing first. There was no word on casualties.

Canon Andrew White, an Anglican Church envoy, said he hoped negotiations in the 21-day standoff would resume.

``The situation is getting steadily worse,″ White said. ``There is no food. The people are getting water from a well. The sanitary conditions are terrible. Several people are sick and some are injured.″

White said the 35 priests and nuns were staying voluntarily to ensure no harm came to the shrine.

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