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Israelis, Palestinians near agreement on church standoff

Monday, May 6, 2002

Associated Press WriterBETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Israel and the Palestinians appeared close to resolving the 35-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity, but were still at odds Monday on how many Palestinian gunmen would be removed from the shrine and sent into exile.

Palestinian sources said Yasser Arafat was having difficulty giving the final go-ahead to the deportations -- a sensitive issue among Palestinians, millions of whom already live in exile -- and was trying to minimize the numbers of those to be deported.

The CIA, the Vatican and the European Union were all involved in efforts to end the confrontation at one of Christendom's holiest sites.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would like to have a deal completed so he can focus on other issues when he meets President Bush at the White House on Tuesday. Sharon contends no Mideast peace agreement is possible with Arafat, and is seeking Bush's support for that position.

The Palestinians want no more than eight gunmen holed up inside the church to be sent into exile in Italy. Israel is insisting on deporting 13, according to Palestinian officials who requested anonymity.

Under the current proposals, 30 or so other Palestinian militiamen would be sent to the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinians.

Close to 200 people remain inside the church, including Palestinian gunmen and civilians, Christian priests, monks and nuns, and 10 Western activists who slipped in last week to deliver food to those subsisting on one meal a day.

The Palestinians initially rejected the idea of deportations -- a policy Israel used before the peace process began in 1993. Israel used the tactic both as punishment for political activists deemed dangerous and to distance militants from Israeli targets.

Any deal is expected to include the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem, the last Palestinian city where soldiers remain following Israel's West Bank incursion, launched March 29 to track down militants after a wave of suicide bombings in Israel.

However, Israeli forces maintain a tight ring around most West Bank cities and have been launching frequent incursions into Palestinian territory to arrest suspected militants.

On Monday, three Palestinians, including a member of the Islamic militant Hamas group, were killed in clashes with Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, said soldiers who opened fire from a tank Sunday, killing a Palestinian woman and two of her children, ages 4 and 6, were spooked by the sound of a tank tread coming loose. The army initially said a mine blew up near the tank, but retracted that Monday after no traces of an explosion were found. The army said it regretted the deaths.

The director of the U.N. Development Program in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Tim Rothermel, estimated it would cost $300 million to $400 million to repair the damage to Palestinian areas inflicted by Israel's military offensive.

The standoff in Bethlehem began April 2, when Israeli forces charged into the town, prompting the gunmen, along with Palestinian policemen and some civilians, to flee into the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birthplace.

About 75 Palestinians and several Christian clerics have since emerged from the compound.

Those still inside give different reasons for remaining. The Palestinian policemen and some civilians say they want to show solidarity for the Palestinian cause. Others say they are afraid for their lives, with Israeli troops encircling the shrine.

On Monday, Israeli and Palestinian officials were reviewing a list of 132 names of Palestinians in the church. Palestinians said most would be freed.

The Israeli military gave The Associated Press a list of 10 top wanted men inside the church. Among them were several members of the Abayat clan, including Ibrahim Abayat, 29, accused of the murders of three Israelis, and Mohammed Salem, a 23-year-old accused of organizing two suicide attacks that killed several Israelis in March.

"I object to my brother being exiled," said Ibrahim Abayat's sister, Iman Abayat. "At least I want to see him leaving the church before he is sent away from his homeland."

Negotiators had been holding talks at the Bethlehem Peace Center, just a few steps from the church compound, which dates to the 4th century.

The top CIA official in the region has also been involved, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the official said no resolution to the standoff was likely before Tuesday.

Still, Israeli and Palestinian officials sounded optimistic.

"We hope that the problem in Bethlehem will be resolved in the coming few hours," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Monday. "We accepted certain compromises" -- an apparent reference to the idea of deportations.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said, "I have a feeling that we are certainly moving in a positive direction."

Under the deal outlined by the Palestinians, some of the wanted men would go into exile and others would be sent to Gaza, where they could be imprisoned under the watch of American and British jailers.

That would be similar to one brokered last week, when six wanted Palestinians were sent to a Palestinian jail in the West Bank town of Jericho, to be watched over by U.S. and British wardens. That led to Arafat's release after more than a month of confinement at his offices by Israeli troops.

Sharon arrived in Washington on Monday. Israel and the United States are both talking about the need for radical reform in the Palestinian Authority, but differ on Arafat's place as its head.


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