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Israeli Siege of West Bank Continues

By VOA News

Israeli troops continued to pound the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin Sunday, despite fresh U.S. demands for Israeli withdrawal from the cities it has occupied in its current offensive.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended the offensive at the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting. He told Israeli TV that Israel has no interest in dragging out the campaign, but said "we have to do the job."

Israeli troops have occupied most population centers in the West Bank but have continued to run into stiff opposition in Nablus and Jenin, both strongholds of Palestinian militant groups. The army said it has killed 30 Palestinians in Nablus since Friday. Palestinians put the number dead at 27.

Israel's army chief of staff, General Shaul Mofaz put the overall Palestinian death toll since the drive began at 200 killed. He said 14 Israeli soldiers have been killed and 1,500 Palestinians have been wounded since the operation began 10 days ago. Independent verification of the totals was impossible because journalists have been barred from the area.

Palestinians say Israeli forces have now moved into villages near Ramallah, including Beit Rima and Koubar. Soldiers are also still deployed inside Ramallah, as well as Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, at least 200 Palestinians, including gunmen, remain holed up in the Church of the Nativity for a sixth day, surrounded by Israeli forces.

Diplomats at the Vatican have put forward a plan aimed at resolving the standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen inside that church. Details of the Vatican proposal are not known, but Reuters news agency quoted a church spokesman - Father David Jaeger - as saying the plan is honorable, peaceful and capable of immediate implementation.

The Palestinian gunmen and civilians took refuge in the church last week, and they have remained holed up there, along with 40 Franciscan monks and four nuns. Israeli troops have surrounded the church, which is considered one of the holiest sites in Christendom.

The Israeli army wants the armed men, some of whom are suspected terrorists, to surrender, and the Franciscans in the church, fearing a bloodbath, have vowed to stay inside.

The Vatican has a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, which overseas the Church's work in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Its embassy to the Jewish state is in Jaffa.

Israel's Aim: Destroy Terrorist Networks

By Laurie Kassman (VOA-Jerusalem)

Israeli military commanders say the situation in the northern West bank towns of Tulkarem and Qalqilya is calm and they expect to take control of Nablus and Jenin by Monday after several days of fierce fighting. At least 14 Israeli soldiers and some 200 Palestinians have died in the fighting since the military operations were launched nearly two weeks ago.

Despite mounting international pressure to withdraw the troops, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel said ending the operations too soon defeats the goal, which he said was to destroy terrorist networks operating in the West Bank.

"If we do it too soon, then another series of devastating terror attacks will hit Israeli cities and streets. And then we'll go in," said Harel. "Paradoxically, if we stay in and fight the terrorist infrastructure and get higher achievements, then maybe we will be able to rest [stop] a little these terrorist hits."

A tight curfew in Bethlehem kept Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem from attending regular Sunday church services. Since the start of Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli forces have been sharply criticized by the Red Cross for attacking ambulances and preventing Palestinian medical teams from reaching the injured.

After talks with the head of the International Red Cross on Sunday, Israel's deputy foreign minister says the military will buy three new ambulances for the Palestinian Red Crescent to replace those destroyed by its tanks.

US Official Urges Immediate Israeli Pullout

By Jessica Berman (VOA-Washington)

Secretary of State Colin Powell left Sunday to visit some Muslim nations and Israel in search of an end to violence between Israelis and the Palestinians. The Bush administration has strongly urged Israel to pull back its troops from Palestinian areas in advance of Powell's arrival.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said President Bush's message to Israel is very clear, that Israel must begin its troop withdrawal "now, without delay, not tomorrow."

"He believes the situation in the Middle East is now at a tipping point," she added. "We are at a crucial point, and he has said to our good friend Israel that it is time to begin withdrawal from the occupied areas, the areas that they have recently occupied, and it is time to reverse and to change the dynamics of this situation."

Interviewed Sunday on CBS television's Face the Nation, Rice said the U.S. understands that Israel's military mobilization cannot be undone in moments. But she also told interviewers Israel must not wait for the arrival in the region of Powell. She restated the Administration's call that all parties to the conflict must act to end the violence.

Appearing on another television program Sunday, NBC's Meet the Press, the chief Palestinian representative in the United States, Hassan Abdel Rahman, reacted to the U.S. communication to Israel: "Once they would go, I assure you that we are very eager to reach a ceasefire."

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