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Israel Offers Plan to End Church Siege - 2002-04-14

Israel has offered Palestinian gunmen the chance to peacefully end the siege around one of Christianity's holiest shrines. Under the plan, the gunmen could leave Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and stand trial or go into exile.

Israel says the Palestinian gunmen who have seized control of the church can leave peacefully and ensure their lives are spared.

Under the proposal, the gunmen who seized control of the shrine, where tradition holds Jesus was born, could either agree to face charges in an Israeli court or go into permanent exile. Israel asked Secretary of State Colin Powell to deliver the offer to the Palestinian leadership.

Church leaders fear for the lives of clergyman, also trapped inside the sanctuary and for the sanctity of the shrine. The standoff followed the launch of the Israeli military offensive in the West Bank aimed at halting a campaign of Palestinian terrorism.

Some of the worst clashes since the start of operations occurred in the Jenin Palestinian refugee camp, where scores of Palestinians and more than 20 Israeli soldiers were reported to have been killed.

Israel's Supreme Court rejected three petitions that would have prevented the Israeli army from removing dead bodies from Jenin. But under the decision, Red Cross officials will search with the army for the dead under the debris of buildings destroyed during the fighting.

The action followed reports that the Israeli army intended to only hand over the bodies of civilians, and to place those identified as Palestinian terrorists in a mass grave.

Mohammed Barakeh, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, was one of the petitioners. "We asked the High Court that representatives of the Red Cross and international human-rights groups join the army when they gather or collect the bodies of the victims," he said.

A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Gideon Meir, says that the petitions had been nothing more than an attempt to unjustly damage the reputation of the Jewish State. "What we are witnessing here today is an attempt by the Palestinian side, of the Palestinian propaganda machine to use the Israeli Supreme Court in order to show as if there was a massacre," he charged. "There was no massacre whatsover. There was a fight. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed there and we are trying to bring these bodies together with the Palestinians."

In a separate development, Israel's Cabinet has approved the establishment of buffer zones to prevent Palestinians in the West Bank from entering the Jewish State to carry out attacks.