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Arafat Leaves Ramallah for First Time in Months - 2002-05-13

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has toured battle-scarred cities in the West Bank, leaving Ramallah for the first time in more than five months. Mr. Arafat traveled aboard a Jordanian air force helicopter, visiting three areas hit hard by Israel's recent military incursion in the West Bank.

Arm-in-arm with senior clergymen, the Palestinian leader visited Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, days after a deal was reached to end an Israeli siege of the basilica. "This place will be always and forever inside our hearts, minds, and beliefs," he said during his tour of the Christian shrine.

Large groups of Palestinians surged around Mr. Arafat during his visit to the church, which is built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. The Palestinian leader, who is a Muslim, went on to the adjacent Saint Catherine's Roman Catholic Church where he bowed before the altar.

Mr. Arafat also visited the cities of Nablus and Jenin, where fierce fighting took place last month between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen.

The Palestinian leader, however, canceled a planned tour inside the Jenin refugee camp, which was partially devastated in the fighting. Some of the thousands of people waiting inside the camp expressed disappointment and anger at the cancellation, which was apparently due to security concerns.

Palestinians initially said hundreds of civilians were killed in a massacre by Israeli troops at the refugee camp. Israel vehemently denied the charge, saying about 50 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, most of them militants. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were also killed in the battle. International human rights groups have accused the Israeli military of abuses during the clashes, but have said there is no evidence of a massacre.

Israel launched its military offensive in the West Bank in late March after a series of Palestinian suicide bombings killed dozens of Israelis.

Israeli officials say the operation was designed to crack down on militants behind attacks against the Jewish state.

Earlier this month, Israeli troops withdrew from Ramallah, ending a five-month blockade of the Palestinian leader's headquarters and allowing him to travel again.