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Israel intensifies West Bank campaign

Mourners in Tel Aviv attend the funeral Tuesday of police officer Tomer Mordechai, 19, killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber Monday in Jerusalem.  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel pressed on with its military campaign in the West Bank early Wednesday, with tanks rolling into Jenin, a town Israeli officials have called a haven for terrorists.

The activity was reported by Palestinian security sources. The Israel Defense Forces had no immediate comment.

But the IDF said it was conducting antiterrorism operations in nine other West Bank towns, including Ramallah and Bethlehem.

"Bethlehem is the place where we are encountering our heaviest battles," Col. Miri Eisine said in a written statement Tuesday. "We in the IDF understand the symbolism of Bethlehem to the people of the world. That is why the chief of staff has given a direct order to the forces fighting in the Bethlehem to hold fire on religious structures."

He said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Tanzim militia have "entered into church compounds" there and "are firing and throwing pipe bombs at Israeli forces."

Bethlehem's governor and an aid worker said about 100 to 150 Palestinian men, women and children sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity, a monument to the birth of Jesus, following intense gun battles in the historic city.

Palestinian security sources say Israeli tanks rolled Wednesday into Jenin, a town Israeli officials have called a haven for terrorists. The Israeli military has no immediate comment.  
About 100 to 150 Palestinian men, women and children seek haven at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, say the city's governor and an aid worker inside. An IDF spokesman says Palestinian militia members are firing from church compounds.  
Israel says documents seized from Yasser Arafat's compound links group behind recent suicide bombings to a Palestinian Authority finance official.  
Israel heavily damages Palestinian security compound; U.S. brokers surrender of 200 people inside.  
Sharon suggests "one-way ticket" out of West Bank for Arafat; Palestinians angrily reject idea.  
U.S. approves departure of family members of government employees in Jerusalem.  
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Anton Salman -- a member of the Antonius Society, a humanitarian group in Bethlehem -- said that some of those inside were members of the Palestinian Authority security force and carried their "personal weapons." But he added: "That doesn't mean they have weapons facing the tanks."

"They didn't enter to take any military action," Salman said by phone from inside the church.

The Israeli military operations in the West Bank began Friday in response to a series of Palestinian terror attacks during the Passover holiday.

At least 43 Israelis have been killed and more than 100 wounded in the attacks since last Wednesday night. Israel says it is attempting to isolate Arafat and dismantle terrorist networks operating in the West Bank.

Eisine, the IDF spokesman, said that in addition to Ramallah and Bethlehem, the Israeli army was operating in or near Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilyah, Tubas, Tamun and Tiasir. He also said forces were "closing in" on a Palestinian security compound in Beitunia, north of Jerusalem, where they were "pinpointing selected terrorists."

In Ramallah, Israeli tanks, troops and armored personnel carriers have surrounded and pounded Arafat's compound since last Friday. Wednesday's intensified military activity in other towns came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested Tuesday that Arafat could leave on a "one-way ticket" into exile.

"He will not be able to return," Sharon told reporters.

Palestinians were outraged by the statement.

"This is a joke," said Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rudeineh. "Prime Minister Sharon is not a serious man, and he's waging a war of aggression against the Palestinian people."

Arafat remains inside his office in his badly damaged compound in Ramallah. (Map of Arafat's compound.)

The IDF said Tuesday documents seized from that compound links the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades -- the military arm of Arafat's Fatah movement behind several recent suicide bombings -- to Fouad al-Shoubaki, the former chief of procurement and finance for Palestinian Authority security forces. (Full story)

The Palestinian security apparatus compound was hammered with tank shells, rockets from helicopter gunships, machine gun fire and small arms fire. As he watched the scene unfold from about a mile from the five-acre site, CNN's Michael Holmes described it as a "ferocious attack" that caused extensive destruction. (Full story)

Bullets flying in Manger Square

In Bethlehem, witnesses said Israeli helicopter gunships flying over Manger Square exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen near the Church of the Nativity.

There was also a heavy exchange of fire near a convent and a tank shell struck the main mosque in Bethlehem, just outside the church, according to witnesses.

As many as 50 Israeli troops occupied the campus of Bethlehem University, a Vatican-owned institution, said school President Vincent Malham.

"Bethlehem has become a war site for the moment," Malham said. "We are, of course, terrorized and terrified because there's so much shooting going on all around us."

Powell: Arafat is leader of Palestinian people

Israeli forces hit the Palestinian Authority security headquarters on the outskirts of Ramallah.  

About 200 people inside the Palestinian Authority's battered security compound in Ramallah were brought out as part of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire and placed in Israeli custody. The people, some of them wounded, were being questioned at an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Israel says it is looking for known terrorists in the group.

Sharon said he had received calls from world leaders voicing concern about Arafat's plight. He said he had told them they could send a helicopter to take Arafat from Ramallah but that he would not be allowed to return.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat denounced the idea, saying Arafat would not accept exile.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he didn't think Sharon's comments would have an effect one way or the other.

"Chairman Arafat is the head of the Palestinian Authority and he is recognized ... as the leader of the Palestinian people," Powell told CNN.

"And he'll be the leader of the Palestinian people whether he is sitting in Ramallah, or whether he is sitting in some exile location ... so it seems to me, let's deal with him where he is." (Full story)

The IDF said it has arrested more than 700 Palestinian suspects in Ramallah, including a "relatively large number" wanted by the Israeli government.

Hospital officials in Ramallah said people killed after the Israeli invasion began in the city were being buried near the hospital grounds because there was no more room in the morgue. At least 25 bodies were brought to the morgue after hospital officials said Monday they had reached capacity.

The Israeli government Monday closed the West Bank and warned foreign journalists to leave.

Two news cameramen said Tuesday they were filming Israeli soldiers stopping ambulances in Ramallah when other soldiers ordered them to strip to their boxer shorts and submit to a search of their gear. They were allowed to leave but they said a third cameraman was detained.

Other developments

  • The European Union told Israel on Tuesday it must immediately end its incursions into Palestinian territories, withdraw its troops and end the confinement of Arafat. "One thing is to fight terrorism, and another is to dismantle the Palestinian Authority's power structure," said Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique. (Full story)
  • While not demanding an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas, the Bush administration is urging Israel to finish its current sweep for suspected terrorists and move into a cease-fire. An administration official said U.S. Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni is "on the phone endlessly" with both Israeli and Palestinian security officials, but has not met with either side in several days. (Full story)
  • The U.S. State Department has approved an "authorized departure" of family members of U.S. government employees assigned to Jerusalem, in response to the last few days of violence, a State Department official said Tuesday. Separately, an updated travel warning from the State Department urged American citizens residing in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem to "consider relocating to a safe location." The advisory cites "numerous civilian deaths and injuries, including to some American tourists."
  • Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said Tuesday the Bush administration's position on the Middle East is "incoherent" and warned there is a "drift toward an abyss." In an interview on CNN's "American Morning," Brzezinski said neither Sharon nor Arafat is capable of articulating "what a settlement looks like." The Bush administration needs to articulate "what its concept of a real settlement is," Brzezinski said.




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