NABLUS, West Bank (AP) – Israeli tanks tightened their chokehold on the West Bank’s biggest city, and battles raged yesterday at nearby Palestinian refugee camps. The United States intensified its involvement – sending a mediator to meet Yasser Arafat and ordering in the secretary of state.

Paul Wong
A group of demonstrators gathers near the Israeli embassy in Washington yesterday afternoon to protest Israeli actions in the West Bank. (AP PHOTO)

An Israeli soldier was killed in Hebron, one of just two key West Bank cities still under Palestinian control. The military called the Hebron action a pinpoint operation – not a takeover – that continued into the early hours Friday. No other details were immediately available.

President Bush demanded that Israel halt its weeklong military offensive and pull out of Palestinian territory. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon avoided a direct public response. “Operation Defensive Shield will continue,” his office said in a statement, although officials said it was not a reaction to Bush’s announcement.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians welcomed Bush’s statement and decision to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region.

A statement from the office of Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer suggested Israel had no plans for an immediate withdrawal.

It said the military chief “emphasizes that Israel will cooperate in U.S. efforts to cease terror and fire. In the absence of a true willingness to do the same on the Palestinian side, Israel will continue in its actions to stop terror.”

The fall of Nablus yesterday put six major West Bank cities and towns under Israeli control, with only two left unoccupied: Hebron and Jericho. But Israeli tanks, helicopter gunships and soldiers struggled to wipe out pockets of resistance and flush out hundreds of militants holed up in one of Christianity’s most sacred sites, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Five Palestinians were killed yesterday, including three gunmen and a man who worked as the church’s caretaker and bell ringer: Samir Ibrahim Salman, a Palestinian Christian. The 45-year-old man was shot in the chest while walking to the church, said hospital director Peter Koumry.

Palestinians also accused the Israelis of blowing open a metal back door leading to a courtyard in the ancient basilica, breaking a pledge not to damage the church, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. They said the troops fired inside, wounding three people.

The Israeli military denied the accusation but prevented reporters from reaching the church to assess the claims. Reporters have been ordered to leave all six West Bank towns seized by Israel.

Amid growing world concern that the tensions could spark a regional conflict, a European Union mission arrived and asked to meet with Arafat – a request the Israelis swiftly denied.

After Bush spoke, European Commission President Romano Prodi, who on Wednesday urged Washington to step aside to make room for a broader mediation effort, offered the EU’s “full cooperation” to the United States and all other parties seeking to end the violence.

“I warmly welcome the statement of President Bush,” Prodi said in a statement. “It is an expression of determination and leadership.”

U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, who met with Sharon yesterday, was given permission to visit the Palestinian leader. Sharon had initially turned down such a request by Powell. Bush administration officials said Zinni would try to see Arafat today; Powell is to leave for the Middle East next week.

For the past week, Arafat has been in what amounts to Israeli custody, trapped by soldiers surrounding his office compound in the West Bank’s commercial capital, Ramallah.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz came out publicly for the expulsion of Arafat from the West Bank. Declaring that Arafat supports terrorism, Mofaz told a news conference, “it’s preferable that he would be outside.”

Ben-Eliezer promptly rebuked Mofaz. He said the military commander has a right to his opinions but must keep them to himself, “certainly after the government has made a decision.”

Israel launched “Operation Defensive Shield” on March 29 to crush Palestinian militias that have carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, including seven suicide bombings in the past week.

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