- NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters)
- Twenty-five Palestinians have been killed in one of the bloodiest days
since Israel began a military offensive in the West Bank, despite President
Bush's call for Israeli forces to withdraw.
- Any faint hopes raised by Bush's demand and a meeting
between U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni and besieged Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat Friday were dashed by the heavy death toll in Palestinian cities
and refugee camps on the West Bank.
- Bush was joined at his ranch in Texas Friday by British
Prime Minster Tony Blair for a weekend summit where the Israeli-Palestinian
crisis will top the agenda.
- And in a hardening of the U.S. stance toward Israel,
Secretary of State Colin Powell told Israel it should withdraw military
forces from Palestinian areas "without delay" and not use the
days before his trip to the region this weekend as a reason to continue
- Israel says the eight-day-old offensive is aimed at rooting
out people suspected of planning and carrying out a series of suicide bombings
which have claimed scores of Israeli lives.
- The operation first met with U.S. understanding for Israeli
defense needs. But the situation changed dramatically on Thursday night
when Bush declared "enough is enough" and called on Israel to
withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities.
- Some commentators in Israel believe Israeli forces will
now step up the pace of their operation to try to achieve their goals in
the next few days -- rather than the month originally envisaged -- before
growing world pressure forces a halt.
- However, the White House stopped short Friday of criticizing
Israel for not already pulling back. Spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters
in Texas: "The president recognizes that in a region that's been marred
by violence for decades, major events don't necessarily happen overnight."
- The White House also said Powell had no plans "at
this moment" to meet Arafat, who Washington has accused of not doing
enough to prevent attacks on Israel.
- MOUNTING VIOLENCE
- Clashes and Israeli strikes gathered in intensity Friday.
The deadliest single Israeli attack targeted a group of militants in the
northern West Bank village of Toubas.
- The Islamic militant group Hamas confirmed six of its
members, including Qais Idwan, head of its military wing in nearby Jenin,
were killed when the house they were in was bombarded by Israeli tanks
and helicopter gunships.
- An Israeli security source said Idwan was suspected of
being behind the devastating bombing in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya
at the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover last week that killed 26
people and helped trigger the army's offensive.
- "Our retaliation will be very harsh and cruel according
to the measure of the crime," Sheikh Jamal Abu al-Heija, a Hamas political
official in Jenin, told Reuters.
- Hamas has been at the forefront of a bombing campaign
against Israelis since the start of the Palestinian uprising. Israel has
killed dozens of militants in a policy it justifies as self-defense, but
Palestinians call assassination.
- An Israeli missile strike killed three Palestinians in
a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian sources said.
Israeli sources had no comment.
- ZINNI MEETS ARAFAT
- Amid the mayhem, U.S. Middle East envoy Zinni met Arafat
under the guns of Israeli tanks at the Palestinian president's besieged
headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
- Palestinian officials said the two men agreed 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.
- Oil prices fell heavily Friday as pressure from the United
States on Israel to end its raids soothed fears that crude supplies might
be hit by a wider war involving the region's Arab oil-producing nations.
- However, on the streets of North Africa and the Gulf,
thousands of demonstrators appeared unmollified by the U.S. move and defied
teargas to protest against the West Bank offensive.
- Demonstrators in Bahrain attacked the U.S. embassy, while
in Jordan, protesters marched on the Israeli embassy. Later, in New York,
thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters took to the streets chanting "Free,
free Palestine" and carrying signs reading "Bush, Sharon -- War
- GUNFIRE IN BETHLEHEM
- Arafat had welcomed Bush's call for an Israeli pullout,
and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres praised Bush for "joining
in the effort to bring about a cease-fire."
- But Bush, calling for a world effort to stop suicide
bombers, again attacked Arafat in a British television interview Friday
as a leader who had let his people down.
- "My worry is that Yasser Arafat can't perform. He's
been given plenty of opportunities," Bush said.
- Blair said a possible time frame for a Middle East cease-fire
and a return to negotiations would be on the agenda of his summit with
Bush but conceded the situation looked grim, saying "there can be
few grounds for optimism at the moment."
- Explosions and gunfire rang out across 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
- Fighting was also intense in Nablus, the West Bank's
biggest city, where nine Palestinians were killed. A police officer and
four others were killed in the West Bank city of Jenin, along with one
- A 14-year-old girl was killed by Israeli helicopter fire
in the village of Toubas, near Jenin, and a 17-year-old youth was killed
by tank fire near Nablus, witnesses and officials said.
- Masked Palestinian gunmen shot dead three men suspected
of collaborating with Israeli forces in Toubas, witnesses said.
- In a move certain to inflame tempers, Palestinian Information
Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Israeli troops forced their way into his
home Friday on the pretext of conducting a search. The army had no comment.
- 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.
- At least 1,188 Palestinians and 414 Israelis have been
killed since the uprising began.