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Israelis Battle Palestinians in West Bank Towns - 2002-04-03


Israeli tanks and troops pushed into the northern West Bank towns of Jenin and Salfit Wednesday, extending the military offensive deeper into the West Bank. Troops have rolled into Nablus, and in Bethlehem dozens of Palestinian gunmen took refuge inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

International pressure is increasing on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull his troops back from the West Bank. But the military offensive is expanding to most of the northern areas of the West Bank.

Israeli troops have been battling Palestinian militants in several towns.

In Bethlehem, the clashes have concentrated in and around Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity.

Dozens of gunmen sought refuge inside the Church during heavy skirmishes on Tuesday. In a phone interview with the VOA, Italian TV journalist Marc Innaro described the situation from his vantage point inside the church complex.

"I can see clearly three tanks parked in front of me about 150 meters [away]. So I can guess from that that the tanks are staying all around the perimeter of the Nativity church. The 200 gunmen who rushed into the Basilica yesterday afternoon are very determined. They don't want to surrender to the Israeli army, and it seems that no negotiations were made between them and the Israelis. Only there is a tentative negotiation thanks to the Vatican envoy," Mr. Innaro said.

Mr. Innaro said the gunmen shot their way into the locked church Tuesday afternoon. "They shot at the doors to enter because the doors of the Franciscan cluster were closed, locked. And so in order to open the doors, they shot with machine guns and then they opened the doors and they rushed inside," he said.

By Wednesday afternoon, the gunfire had subsided around the church area. The city's streets now are deserted, and nobody is venturing outside.

Bethlehem's Palestinian Mayor Hanna Nasser told VOA that Israeli troops have taken over his office, so he is trying to work from his home. "Now I've finished my 30 years in the city council. I never remember in my life - and you know I was born in 1936 - I do not remember such a difficult period that is taking place as such in Bethlehem right now," the mayor said.

The military push into Bethlehem has been repeated across the West Bank. Tanks are lining up to enter the northern city of Nablus.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel told VOA the military offensive will not end any time soon.

"The campaign will continue as long as it takes, which means until we dismantle the infrastructure of terror," Mr. Mekel said.

In Ramallah, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains under siege, confined to a few rooms at his headquarters there. Israeli tanks and troops surround the three-story building.

Israeli soldiers at a Jerusalem checkpoint have used tear gas to turn back about 2,000 peace activists trying to deliver food and medicines to Ramallah. Residents there have complained of shortages because of a tight curfew in place since Israel's military invaded the town last Friday.

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