Tags: Bethlehem | Deal | Still | Being | Worked | Out

Bethlehem Deal Still Being Worked Out

Tuesday, 07 May 2002 12:00 AM

As of midday Tuesday, Israeli sources said an agreement would probably take another two or three hours to reach.

Some Palestinian sources reported that opposition to the deal was rising.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Ranteesi, told United Press International that Hamas "is rejecting the policy of deporting any Palestinian from his homeland."

"This policy is part of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's policy of massive transfer of the Palestinian people," said Ranteesi. "It is the first time ever that the Palestinian leadership is being deceived by Israel and America, and accepts the deportation."

Bethlehem Gov. Muhammad al Madani said that under the deal, Israel would end its military occupation of Bethlehem and its siege of the church, believed to be Jesus' birthplace.

He said the agreement entailed sending 13 Palestinian militants to Italy for a certain period of time, which may last three years, and sending 26 other Palestinians to Gaza, where they would be jailed.

After this deal was approved by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, al Madani entered the church, along with two other officials, to inform those inside of its terms.

Some 80 Palestinians who had sought refuge inside the church and who have no links to militant organizations will be released.

The agreement however, still needs final approval from Italy. Dan Meridor, an official with Sharon's office, was working on this aspect.

Hussein a-Sheikh, West Bank leader of the Fatah faction, said the deal was a "crime," saying that the Palestinian National Authority should not have accepted the principle of deportation.

The siege began on April 2, when around 200 Palestinians -- some of them armed and including around 40 militants wanted by Israel -- barricaded themselves in the church after the Israelis entered Bethlehem.

More than 80 of those who were in the church left during the siege for various reasons. Israeli sharpshooters killed eight.

Reports said U.S. officials and buses were waiting outside the church to transport the 13 Palestinian militants either to Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, or to Rafah terminal on the border with Egypt. Twenty-six other militants were to be sent to a jail cell in Gaza, sources said.

In Washington on Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell had said that the standoff would end in the next few days.

In Israel on Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had announced that negotiations were on the verge of being completed regarding the impasse at the church.

Israel has originally sought to detain the hard-core militants, and try some of them for homicide. The Palestinians resisted, the talks reached a dead end, and intensive U.S. pressure and CIA involvement got the talks back on track.

Ben-Eliezer said that when the standoff was resolved, the Israeli army will withdraw its troops from Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala, the last two towns the Israelis have been occupying since they launched Operation Defensive Shield.

The Israeli army withdrew from all the other towns it had captured, but is maintaining a tight closure around them to prevent renewed militant attacks.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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As of midday Tuesday, Israeli sources said an agreement would probably take another two or three hours to reach. Some Palestinian sources reported that opposition to the deal was rising. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Ranteesi, told United Press International...
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Tuesday, 07 May 2002 12:00 AM
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