Sharon Hints At New Army
Offensive On Gaza Strip

By Phil Reeves in Jerusalem

Ariel Sharon may be planning a military offensive against the Gaza Strip, the heartland of anti-Israeli militancy.
The Israeli Prime Minister told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that "terror" in the Gaza Strip was "ongoing", remarks that will seen by many Israelis as an indication that tanks and troops are poised to strike.
Gaza is said by sources to be "wired" for an attack, raising the possibility of a battle that could dwarf the nine-day conflict that led to the devastation of Jenin refugee camp.
Ominously, a senior Israeli army officer reported to the same committee yesterday that there had recently been 250 "terror attacks" in the strip.
Amid international concerns there may soon be another stage of Mr Sharon's "war on terror", efforts continued to try to resolve the stand-off that resulted from the first phase.
Israeli and Palestinian officials held their first direct talks yesterday, aimed at ending a three-week siege in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem where conditions have steadily worsened for the several hundred people inside the basilica.
Israeli army negotiators appeared determined not to budge from their demand for the surrender of between 35 and 40 Palestinian alleged militants, so they can put on trial or exiled from the occupied territories.
The Palestinian negotiators - who described yesterday's session as "constructive" - are pushing for a solution, proposed in the early stage of the crisis, under which the wanted men would be removed to the Gaza Strip, with the protection of international guarantees.
Signs grew further yesterday of the deteriorating conditions inside the church, which is surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks. Despite the risk of being shot at by snipers, two monks climbed on to one of the compound roofs yesterday, brandishing a notice saying "Please Save Us". A spokesman for the Franciscan Order - which has several dozen monks inside the basilica - said it had filed a petition to Israel's Supreme Court calling for an order requiring the Israeli authorities to meet the humanitarian needs of those inside the basilica.
Father David Jaeger, speaking from Rome, said he wanted water and electricity supplies to be restored, and for the army to stop obstructing the delivery of food. The order also asked for permission for the removal and proper burial of two Muslims, who have been in the church for days after being shot dead by the Israeli armed forces.
The army says it has supplied food through the siege. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury's envoy, Canon Andrew White, said it had run out two days ago.
While the stalemate continued, there were signs that attempts by Mr Sharon to isolate Yasser Arafat were failing. Although Mr Sharon opposed a recent visit to the Palestinian leader's compound by the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, his government announced last night that permission had been given for a visit by a delegation of senior European officials tomorrow.
These include the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and its Middle East envoy, Miguel Moratinos, and the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers. The decision reflects Israel's desire to lessen the international ire over the destruction wreaked by its armed forces in Jenin.
Mr Sharon is also making no secret of his misgivings about the United Nations fact-finding mission that will investigate the Jenin fighting.

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