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THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel Out of Nablus, Parts of Ramallah

Conflict: The pullback, however, won't end the siege of Arafat. Officials pledge to aid U.N. probe into the Jenin camp raid.

April 21, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israel pulled its forces out of the West Bank city of Nablus and parts of Ramallah on Saturday night, and officials said they will cooperate with a United Nations probe into the army's devastating attack on the Jenin refugee camp.

The Israeli moves, however, did not include ending the siege of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah. They came as President Bush was meeting at Camp David with members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, to discuss what peace efforts the U.S. might make next.

Powell, who on Wednesday ended a 10-day overseas trip focused on the Mideast conflict, failed either to persuade Israel to immediately withdraw from all Palestinian-controlled areas or to induce Arafat to declare a cease-fire.

U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns toured the wrecked Jenin camp Saturday as refugees and aid workers continued to search for bodies in the rubble. He declared it the site of "terrible human tragedy."

But Israeli officials said they are confident that the United Nations will determine that no massacre of civilians took place during the eight-day military offensive, as Palestinians have charged. Hospital officials in Jenin reported Saturday that 42 bodies had been pulled from the remains of homes and other buildings bulldozed during the furious Israeli assault. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers also were killed during the fighting in the camp, which Israel said it conquered because nearly two dozen suicide bombers came from its warren of homes.

Rescue efforts continued to be hampered by the presence of explosives left during the battle. A Palestinian medic who had volunteered his services suffered severe injuries to a foot Saturday when he stepped on what local doctors said was a mine. It was unclear whether the device was left by Israeli or Palestinian fighters.

"He was injured in the camp while helping pull people" from the rubble, said Dr. Mohammed abu Gali, the director of Jenin's main hospital. "A mine exploded under his foot."

Abu Gali said another man was lightly injured Saturday when part of his home collapsed, trapping him. He was freed by rescuers seven hours later.

Israel withdrew troops and tanks from Jenin and its refugee camp Friday and Israeli officials said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had made good on a promise to be out of Nablus and parts of Ramallah by this morning. When the current intifada began more than a year and a half ago, Ramallah had long been the commercial and political center of Palestinian society. Nablus is the largest city in the West Bank.

But the pullouts are limited. Tanks and troops continue to tightly blockade the West Bank's main cities and are poised to reenter with ease.

Tensions continued to run high in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the wake of Powell's inconclusive visit.

The Israeli army reported that a suspected Palestinian suicide bomber exploded at a checkpoint on the western side of the West Bank town of Kalkilya on Saturday afternoon, after soldiers there called on him to halt as he walked through. There was no immediate claim of responsibility by any group.

And in Gaza, a Palestinian gunman opened fire at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, killing a border policeman before being shot dead by an Israeli tank, both the army and Palestinian sources reported. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Even as Israeli pullbacks appeared to gain momentum, there was no resolution in sight that would free Arafat from his battered Ramallah headquarters, or release about 200 gunmen, civilians and others who are holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

Sharon has said that Israel will continue to blockade Arafat's compound until he hands over the men it says carried out the October assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

The Israelis also want Arafat to give them Fuad Shubaki, whom Israel accuses of bankrolling a large shipment of arms it intercepted en route to the Gaza Strip this year. All the suspects have been inside Arafat's besieged compound. The Palestinians have offered to put them on trial inside Palestinian-controlled territory, an offer Israel has rejected.

In Bethlehem, the Israelis are demanding the surrender of gunmen who it says are barricaded inside the 4th century Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born. The government has proposed that gunmen who surrender will be allowed to choose whether to be tried by Israeli military tribunals or sent into permanent exile. The Palestinians have rejected that offer.

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