Palestinians Report Deal to
End Bethlehem Siege

By Michael Georgy

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - A deal was struck on Tuesday to end a month-long standoff between the Israeli army and Palestinian militants holed up inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Palestinian sources said.
Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay told Reuters there was "no agreement yet" and a final resolution depended on certain Israeli conditions, but army officials in Bethlehem made clear they expected the siege to be lifted soon.
Palestinian sources said that under an accord approved by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, 13 militants inside the church would be exiled to Italy while 26 others would be sent to the Gaza Strip.
A few details still needed to be finalized, they added.
The deal, hammered out while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in Washington waging a diplomatic assault against Arafat, would end the last major standoff of Israel's West Bank offensive launched on March 29 following a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks.
It would also pave the way for troops to leave Bethlehem, the last major city still occupied after the offensive as Sharon prepared to meet President Bush later on Tuesday.
Bush has demanded a full withdrawal from Palestinian-ruled areas, an Arab condition for attending a peace conference that world powers want held this summer to seek an end to 19 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
But progress toward resolving the siege at the church -- built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born -- coincided with an incursion by Israeli tanks in the West Bank city of Tulkarm. Witnesses said troops searched houses and mosques for wanted militants.
A source close to the Bethlehem negotiations said: "Arafat has approved of 13 going to Italy and 26 to Gaza. They are still seeking Italy's approval and there are two other small points that need to be finalized. But overall they have reached a deal."
The Palestinian sources said Palestinian security officials were inside the church trying to finalize details of the deal and gather weapons from the militants.
Several white vans had been seen in the vicinity of the church and some people, including two priests, were walking outside the main door.
One leading Palestinian militant told Reuters by telephone from inside the church that he and 12 others had agreed to go to Italy while 26 would go to Gaza. He said he believed his group would leave the church first.
It was not clear if the 26 militants going to Gaza would be detained by the Palestinian Authority or allowed to go free.
The reported deal followed comments by Secretary of State Colin Powell that Palestinians and Israelis were nearing an accord to lift Israel's siege of the church.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church's Franciscan order said on Monday he had been told the talks had stalled earlier amid reports of disputes over how many of the dozens of militants holed up inside would be sent into exile abroad and how many would be transferred to the Gaza Strip.
In Washington, Sharon called for a major restructuring of the Palestinian Authority in a way that would sideline Arafat.
Sharon said Israel would be able to implement a peace plan -- which he did not disclose -- only if the Palestinian Authority was revamped and Palestinian "violence, terrorism and incitement" ceased.
He was likely to repeat the theme in talks on Tuesday with Bush, who has said the Palestinians deserved a better leadership but has not echoed Sharon's position that Arafat cannot be a peace partner.
Bush, speaking about Arafat, told reporters during a visit to a school in Michigan: "He has disappointed me. He must lead. He must show the world that he believes in peace."
"In order to achieve peace, all parties, the Arab nations, Israel, Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, must assume their responsibilities and lead," said Bush, who has angered Arabs by calling Sharon "a man of peace."
Powell, speaking after separate meetings with Sharon, King Abdullah of Jordan and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, tried to strike a balance between Sharon's preference for interim measures and Arab calls for a complete agreement.
The proposed conference would be "another step on a way forward" rather than a decisive meeting to draft an overall settlement, he said.
King Abdullah warned of the need to move quickly toward a final resolution of the conflict to take advantage of a lull in tension in the region.
Sharon came to Washington armed with a 100-page report that Israel says shows the Palestinian leader used millions of dollars in U.S. and European Union donations to finance attacks on Israelis.
An Israeli cabinet minister traveling with Sharon presented a separate report, based on documents Israel says were seized during the offensive, alleging that Saudi money paid to the Islamic militant group Hamas and to families of Palestinians killed in the uprising only encouraged terrorism.
The Palestinian Authority says the documents aired by Israel to support such reports are forgeries. Hamas has carried out suicide attacks in Israel while also running a large network of charities in the West Bank and Gaza.
At least 1,344 Palestinians and 459 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.


This Site Served by TheHostPros