By Matthew Kalman
30 April 2002
RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Bush administration was still working early Tuesday to finalize a deal to free Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from a month-long Israeli military siege at his headquarters. Meanwhile, the standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem dragged into a fifth week. Also, Israel rejected a bid from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to allow fact-finders to investigate the siege of the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. Israeli officials want military veterans on the United Nations panel so they will understand what Jewish troops experienced.
Arafat, penned up at his offices by Israeli tanks and troops, could go free as early as Tuesday. Israeli officials on Monday said he could leave his bullet-riddled compound and travel in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza territory immediately.
"Arafat can go where he chooses," Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said. But Arafat said he would stay at his compound until Israeli forces left Ramallah. Those forces were not expected to pull out until six men wanted by Israel were transferred from Arafat's complex to a Palestinian prison in the West Bank city of Jericho.
The six men are to be kept under observation by U.S. and British monitors, under the Bush administration plan designed to get Israel to release its stranglehold on Arafat and withdraw troops from Ramallah.
Four of the six Palestinians are wanted for carrying out the October assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. A fifth heads an extremist group believed to have plotted the murder. Another is an Arafat aide accused of smuggling arms from Iran.
Jericho is the only West Bank city to escape major destruction in Israel's month-long offensive.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said U.S. monitors in Jericho will be security officials but not military personnel. U.S. and British officials say they are still choosing wardens to oversee the prisoners. Britain will provide the bulk of the personnel, who will be drawn from a pool with policing experience in war zones such as the Balkans and Northern Ireland.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the wardens would be unarmed. "Prime responsibility is on the Palestinian Authority to ensure the physical security of the facility and the personal security of our wardens," he said.
In Ramallah, some residents were preparing to celebrate once Arafat emerged from his compound, most of which has been razed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers.
"If Arafat is free and the Israelis withdraw, that means we have won a great victory and there will be a party, a big party," shopkeeper Taher Odwan said.
In related matters:
The Bush administration tried Monday to mediate an end to the standoff between Israeli troops outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and an estimated 200 Palestinians inside, many armed.
U.S. officials were hoping gunmen in the church would reconsider an earlier offer by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said they could go into exile or face trial in Israeli courts.
A Palestinian official said 18 civilians in the church would be allowed to leave soon. On Monday, an Israeli sniper killed an armed militant in the church garden.
Israel made fresh incursions in the West Bank city of Hebron and in the Gaza territory in search of the Palestinians who attacked a Jewish settlement. The army said it killed four militants, including one of the men involved in the settlement attack Saturday in which a 5-year-old girl and three other Israelis were shot to death by Palestinian assailants dressed as Israeli soldiers. Palestinians said the Israeli army killed at least eight people in Hebron and that some were civilians.
In Gaza, Israeli troops blew up tunnels believed to be used by Palestinian militants smuggling arms.
Israel voiced new objections to a U.N. fact-finding mission that is to report on its military assault on the Jenin refugee camp.
The camp was the scene of the bloodiest fighting during Israel's incursion in the West Bank. Israel vehemently denies Palestinian claims that scores of camp residents were massacred by its forces. Both the U.N. envoy in the Middle East and Secretary of State Colin Powell have said they know of no evidence of a massacre.
The U.N. and Israel argued over the mission since April 19. Israel wants military officials on the team who are familiar with urban warfare, and it insists the mission be limited to finding the facts only.
Contributing: Barbara Slavin in Washington and wire reports