Israeli commandos swoop down on Hamas hide-out

Saturday, May 4, 2002

NABLUS, West Bank -- Israeli troops swooped down on a Hamas hide-out in the West Bank's largest city Friday, while Orthodox Christians in biblical Bethlehem marked a somber Good Friday with no sign of a break in the siege of the Church of the Nativity, now entering its second month.

Also Friday, Israel and the Palestinians cautiously welcomed a U.S. proposal for an international Mideast peace conference this summer, but stopped short of promising to attend. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon aims for a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians, not a final deal, and will propose that when he meets with President Bush next week, a Sharon adviser said.

In the Israeli raid in Nablus, an activist in the Islamic militant group Hamas and an Israeli soldier were killed, while two Palestinians and two soldiers were wounded. Elsewhere in Nablus, a Palestinian policeman was killed in a clash with Israeli troops.

16 shops destroyed

The Israeli raid began at about 4 a.m. and ended some five hours later, witnesses and the army said. Heavy gunfire erupted when Israeli forces converged on a three-story building on the edge of Nablus' Old City or casbah, which was the scene of fierce fighting last month between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

The targeted building was in Nablus' main commercial district, and about 16 surrounding shops were destroyed in the fighting, neighborhood residents said. They said they cowered in inner rooms of their apartments as the Israelis fired tank shells and heavy machine guns. The army said two bomb factories were found in the building, as well as a car full of weapons.

Adnan Asfour, one of the Hamas leaders in Nablus, said the raid was counterproductive. "What's going on is increasing our determination to continue our struggle, until we achieve our goals, such as an independent state," he said.

In Bethlehem, four Palestinian policemen, weakened by lack of food, emerged Friday from the church built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. One was treated at an Israeli hospital, and three were being questioned, the military said.

About 30 Palestinian gunmen and about 200 others remain holed up inside the church. The standoff, which began April 2, cast a pall over Orthodox Christians' celebrations of Holy Week, which fall about a month later than Easter observances under the Western church calendar.

Traditional services

In the heavily Christian Palestinian towns of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour, adjoining Bethlehem, the army lifted a curfew for several hours Friday afternoon. Local Christians moved traditional Good Friday services from the evening to the afternoon, to coincide with the period the curfew was being lifted.

In Bethlehem, Israel is insisting that the armed men inside the Church of the Nativity surrender or accept exile. Palestinian officials had proposed taking them to the Gaza Strip. Bethlehem's Palestinian mayor, Hanna Nasser, suggested solving the standoff with the same formula that ended the siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah a day earlier.

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