Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon says the current stage of his country's three-week military offensive against the West Bank is over. Mr. Sharon made his announcement as Israeli troops withdrew from Nablus, the largest Palestinian self-rule city in the West Bank. The army also left Ramallah, except for troops surrounding Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the city.
Mr. Sharon says that this meant the current stage of what was named Operation Defensive Shield is now over.
At the same time, an Israeli army spokeswoman says that the troops are continuing to encircle some Palestinian cities in the West Bank. "At the moment we are around Jenin, we will be doing the same with Nablus, keeping a tight closure around these cities to prevent Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel," the spokeswoman said.
Israeli military officials say the 23-day operation resulted in the capture or killing of 15 of Israel's most-wanted Palestinian terrorists.
Of the 4,000 Palestinians detained during the offensive, 1,500 are in Israeli custody. The officials say their operation also uncovered 23 bomb factories, hundreds of explosive belts and thousands of illegal weapons.
The human cost was also steep. Dozens of Palestinians, including militants and a still unknown number of civilians were killed, along with 29 Israeli soldiers.
Palestinian Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, says that the operation is still not over, and says that the troop pull-backs from Nablus and Ramallah are nothing more than a media gimmick. "This so-called withdrawal is directed only to the American administration and to some circles in the United States," he speculated, "in order to tell them that the Israelis had accepted their demands that were made by the American President. That is the aim of it, but they are destroying the life of Ramallah, of Nablus, of Jenin, of these cities that they had claimed they had withdrawn from."
Meanwhile, five Palestinians who were holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank gave themselves up to Israeli forces. The five are not among the wanted Palestinians who have spent almost three-weeks barricaded inside the sanctuary, where tradition holds Jesus was born.
Israel says it will continue to surround the church until all wanted Palestinians in the shrine either surrender or are captured.