Israeli Offensive Ends In Standoffs
By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's crushing offensive in the West Bank ended in stalemate at the besieged compound of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity where defiant gunmen are holed up.
Warily watching the tinderbox standoffs, the United States played for time in a high-stakes waiting game as it pondered its next move in a global war against terrorism, a campaign that could include an assault on Iraq.
"That's our message right now: Give us time to find a way out of this and let's not try to solve it through the use of any violence," Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CNN amid European Union calls on Israel not to raid Arafat's office.
Powell spoke after Israeli tanks rumbled out of Ramallah on Sunday but continued to ring Arafat's office in the battered city to press home demands for the extradition of four wanted Palestinians, including suspected killers of a cabinet minister.
Palestinian officials said William Burns, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East, would meet Arafat on Monday.
Troops quit Nablus but remained around the Bethlehem church revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, now a sanctuary for wanted Palestinian militants trapped with more than 200 policemen, clerics and civilians.
"We will not surrender and we warn (of the consequences) of the slow death we are subjected to," a group of die-hard militants in the church said in a statement.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, dazed Palestinians suddenly free of Israeli curfew emerged from their homes to piles of garbage, smashed shops and streets chewed up by tank tracks.
Palestinian officials called the pullbacks a sham, noting that Israeli forces were keeping a stranglehold on areas just outside the cities they have left in what the army called encirclements to keep suicide bombers out of Israel.
Without declaring victory, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that "this stage" of Operation Defensive Shield had ended, three weeks after it began in the wake of suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.
"We have achieved very profound results but the struggle against terrorism continues. However this time, it will work according to a different method," Sharon told reporters.
He was apparently referring to buffer zones which he wants to establish inside the West Bank to block Palestinian suicide bombers.
Since the operation began on March 29, Israeli officials have made clear they did not expect the punishing sweeps for militants to stop suicide bombings cold, preparing an anxious public for the prospect of more bloodshed in Israeli streets.
Powell, who failed to win a truce during a Middle East mission that ended on Wednesday, said he would ultimately like to see Israeli units that have been redeployed around Palestinian cities back in their garrisons.
"And I would like to see the cities opened up, so that we can start to see normal life resume and so that there are no restrictions with respect to the provision of humanitarian aid," Powell added on CBS television's "Face the Nation."
Powell also repeated his call for Arafat to lead his people to a negotiated settlement.
Palestinian leaders said the offensive caused hundreds of casualties, wiped out Arafat's security services and wrecked many of the nascent institutions of his Palestinian Authority.
The scale of devastation, especially in the Jenin refugee camp, has provoked ferocious criticism from abroad and an exchange of accusations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Stung by Israeli criticism of his Middle East envoy, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed "full confidence" on Sunday in Terje Roed-Larsen, saying he had conducted himself with professionalism and compassion.
Israel's cabinet discussed cutting ties with Roed-Larsen who on Thursday accused the army of using "morally repugnant" means in its assault on the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinians have accused Israeli forces of committing a massacre.
No decision was made but Israeli Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar, among other officials, described Roed-Larsen's comments as "distorted, harmful and one-sided." Israel has called the camp a bastion of terror and denied allegations of a massacre.
"Let me be very clear, I have not and I am not accusing anyone of massacres," Larsen told Israeli Army Radio on Sunday.
"We do not have the full facts from Jenin but what I saw (on Thursday) was truly appalling. The destruction was massive and the stench overwhelming."
Israel promised on Saturday to cooperate with a U.N. Security Council mission to discover what happened in the camp, scene of the fiercest battles of the offensive.
Peter Hansen, the head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, told Reuters 800 dwellings had been destroyed and many more damaged in the camp, leaving 4,000 to 5,000 people homeless.
Mohammed Abu Ghali, director of Jenin hospital, said the body count from the camp had risen to 45. He stood by his earlier estimate that the final toll might be 300 to 400.
Israeli officials say a few dozen people, mostly militants, were killed in Jenin, along with 23 Israeli soldiers.
At least 1,292 Palestinians, including a man shot dead on Sunday at an Israeli roadblock near the West Bank city of Tulkarm, and 453 Israelis have been killed during the 18-month-old Palestinian uprising.

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