Israel Calls Up Reservists -
Palestinians Brace For Invasion

By Mark Heinrich

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel called up reservists on Thursday and Palestinians steeled themselves for possible attack after the Israeli government gave the army the go-ahead to hit back for a suicide bombing this week.
Israel gave no word on when or where it might launch any action, but Palestinian leaders urged it to avoid a strong response such as its recent devastating West Bank offensive.
Tuesday's suicide bombing, which killed 15 Israelis in a club near Tel Aviv, threatened to trigger a new phase of violence and compounded obstacles to arranging an international conference on how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging since September 2000.
The 38-day Israeli siege of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity went on despite the efforts of negotiators. The latest solution involved a European Union agreement for various European countries to take the wanted Palestinians inside the shrine, an Italian government source in Rome said.
Cyprus said Thursday night it had agreed to take for a few days 13 wanted Palestinian militants holed up in the church but there were still issues to be resolved before they left the shrine, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.
Acting on a pledge by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to arrest those responsible for the bombing, Palestinian police in Gaza took the unusual step of arresting 14 members of the Islamic militant faction Hamas Thursday.
But Arafat's actions, under U.S. and Israeli pressure, was unlikely to avert an Israeli military response to the deadliest bombing since the army stormed into Palestinian-ruled towns in the West Bank five weeks ago after earlier suicide bombings.
Hamas has not confirmed it was behind Tuesday's attack.
A government statement gave no details of what military operations had been approved. But it said the security cabinet had empowered Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to decide what action to take.
The 163,000-strong army began calling up reservists and inducting them into their units.
"We'll do whatever we have to," one reservist in a camp outside the Gaza Strip told Israeli television. "I hope it will be OK, that we go in quietly and get out in one piece. We're ready to go in whenever Sharon says."
Many Palestinians expected Israeli forces to hit the Gaza Strip after Israeli media said the bomber was thought to have come from the small, poor territory bordering Egypt.
Palestinians across the Strip made a run on food, fuel and other supplies during the day, fearing they would be trapped at home under Israeli curfew as West Bank compatriots were.
A senior leader of the Islamic militant organization Hamas in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, promised a fight if the Israelis stormed the area.
"We will defend ourselves and our people with all our might and capabilities," he told Reuters.
Saeb Erekat, Arafat's chief negotiator, said an Israeli army thrust into the Gaza Strip would be disastrous.
"It is like adding fuel to fire. We warn against the catastrophic human and environmental consequences of such an attack on the Gaza Strip, which is the most densely populated area in the world," Erekat told Reuters.
Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the army had decided on "functional" action not "territorial" action.
"That is to say, attack the areas from where the suicide attackers leave or the houses from where they leave or the nests where they originate," he said on Israeli TV.
In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher warned Israel against military action in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli action in the West Bank had not achieved any goal, he said.
The bombing Tuesday raised the toll to at least 1,345 Palestinians and 473 Israelis killed since a Palestinian revolt began after talks on a Palestinian state stalled in mid-2000, a few years after Palestinians won self-rule under interim deals.
In Bethlehem, barriers were erected again in Manger Square and Israeli troops remained surrounding the Church of the Nativity.
Under one deal, 26 fighters and the dozens of civilians trapped inside were to leave the shrine while the 13 wanted men slated for exile would remain until a country agreed to take them. But an Israeli army spokesman said the fighters blocked it with "more requests, more demands."
The gunmen burst into the church to elude Israeli troops when they reoccupied Bethlehem on April 2 during the West Bank offensive.


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