US Envoy Zinni Meets Arafat -
Israeli Onslaught Rolls On

By Mohammed Assadi

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni met Yasser Arafat under the guns of Israeli tanks on Friday, but Israel kept up its West Bank offensive despite President Bush's call for a withdrawal.
Bush's intervention and Israel's decision to let Zinni meet the Palestinian leader in his besieged headquarters in Ramallah raised some hope of a breakthrough to end the violence.
But at least 16 Palestinians died in fighting overnight and on Friday, and officials on both sides said Bush's statement left Israel some leeway to pursue its offensive until Secretary of State Colin Powell visits the region next week.
Raising the specter of Middle East conflict spreading to a second front, Israeli jets hit the outskirts of Lebanese border towns after Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrillas attacked a number of Israeli positions in a disputed frontier area, witnesses said.
Palestinian officials said Zinni told Arafat at a 90-minute-meeting that a series of "broad U.S.-Palestinian meetings would be held in the coming hours."
But they later said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had refused to let Arafat meet the Palestinian officials who were due to see Zinni and the talks with Zinni might be scrapped.
Explosions and gunfire rang out across Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and up to 200 Palestinian gunmen and civilians remained trapped in the Church of the Nativity in a four-day-old standoff with Israeli troops.
Four priests managed to slip out of the church, with the army's help, the military said.
The worst fighting was in the northern city of Nablus overnight, where nine Palestinians were killed. Clashes also broke out in the city of Jenin, where five people were killed.
Zinni, a former Marine Corps general, was the first foreign dignitary allowed in by Israel for face-to-face talks with Arafat since its forces smashed into his compound a week ago.
Zinni, whose efforts to forge a truce after 18 months of conflict had been stymied by the bloodshed, was driven to Arafat's compound in a heavily protected convoy. Troops threw stun grenades to turn back a convoy of foreign journalists.
The first crack in Israel's "isolation" of Arafat opened up after Bush signaled a policy shift by pressing Israel to end its military campaign, in which it has reoccupied every West Bank city except for Jericho.
"The storms of violence cannot go on," Bush said in his statement on Thursday. "Enough is enough."
Bush, who had previously defended Israel's actions as an understandable response to recent suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis, switched course under pressure from European and Arab allies to halt the spiraling Middle East violence.
Sharon often pays heed to such admonitions from Washington, which provides Israeli with $3 billion in annual aid, much of its devoted to military purposes.
Nine Palestinians were killed and 24 wounded as battles raged through the night in Nablus, the West Bank's biggest city, Palestinian security officials and witnesses said.
In the northern city of Jenin, hospital sources said a police officer and four other Palestinians were killed.
Ali Jabbarin, deputy director of al-Razi Hospital in Jenin, said one man was wounded by Israeli gunfire outside the hospital and begged for help as nurses watched for several hours while he bled to death because troops prevented them from reaching him.
The army had no immediate comment.
A 14-year-old girl was killed by Israeli helicopter fire in her home in the town of Toubas, and a 17-year-old youth was killed by tank fire near Nablus, witnesses and officials said.
A rocket fired by a helicopter gunship hit two cars in the city of Hebron, wounding 11 civilians, hospital sources said.
Along with calling for an Israeli withdrawal, Bush called on the Palestinians to stop suicide bombings in their revolt against Israeli occupation. He also criticized Arafat, who has been penned up in Ramallah since December.
Arafat said he accepted Bush's call for an Israeli pullout as a prelude to achieving a cease-fire and peace talks. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres welcomed Bush "joining in the effort to bring about a cease-fire."
The U.N. Security Council endorsed the Powell mission in a 15-0 vote and demanded Israel withdraw from Palestinian cities.
Israel launched its offensive last Friday after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 26 Israelis. It says it wants to root out people responsible for a spate of attacks.
Palestinians say Sharon's offensive aims to oust or kill Arafat, destroy his Palestinian Authority, scrap interim peace deals signed since 1993 and block their hopes of independence. Israel says it will not harm the Palestinian leader.
Opinion polls published on Friday showed 72 percent of Israelis supported waging "wide-scale war" in the West Bank and that the launch of the army offensive had boosted support for Sharon. Almost a quarter of respondents in one poll said they wanted Arafat "eliminated," a euphemism for killing him.
Major-General Giora Eiland, head of the army's planning division, expressed satisfaction with the West Bank offensive, saying troops had arrested more than 1,200 people, including dozens he described as "very dangerous terrorists" and seized more than 2,000 weapons.
At least 1,179 Palestinians and 413 Israelis have been killed since the uprising began in September 2000.

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