Israeli tanks enter Hebron

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The Independent Online

Violence punctuated negotiations to resolve a three-week standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian, while Israeli tanks entered the city of Hebron.

In Gaza, Israeli soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians who tried to infiltrate into the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, the military said. Palestinian security sources said that Israeli forces later entered about 300 meters (yards) into Palestinian territory adjoining the settlement and doctors say that in the ensuing exchange of fire a Palestinian police officer was killed.

Earlier, the militant Hamas issued an unusual appeal, calling on teenagers not to try to infiltrate into Jewish settlements. The call came after Israeli soldiers shot and killed three Palestinians trying to break into the settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza on Tuesday. Palestinians said two of them were 14 years old and the third was just 13.

In Bethlehem, another negotiating session was set for Thursday morning, after both sides reported slight progress in their talks Wednesday. They agreed to allow 10 to 15 youths, including two 10-year-olds, to leave the church compound, and Israeli forces were also to take out the bodies of two dead Palestinians, officials from both sides said.

More than 200 Palestinians, many of them armed, fled into the church compound ahead of invading Israeli forces on 2 April. Israel has been demanding that they surrender or accept deportation. The Palestinians proposed that they be escorted to Palestinian-controlled Gaza.

Israeli soldiers continued to keep reporters away from the scene, briefly detaining five foreign journalists and confiscating their press credentials after they tried to join a group of reporters escorted by the military.

There were two violent incidents at the church on Wednesday. In the morning, Israeli soldiers fired at a Palestinian in the church, seriously wounding him. The Israelis said he was armed.

Later, as negotiators were about to meet at the Bethlehem Peace Center next to the church, another round of gunfire erupted. A badly wounded Palestinian was brought out. He died later at Jerusalem hospital. The military said an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded in the exchange.

The Bethlehem holy site, marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus, was one of two hot spots left over from Israel's largest military offensive in two decades, which ended elsewhere over the weekend when Israeli forces pulled out of Palestinian towns.

At the other site, Yasser Arafat's office in Ramallah, European Union diplomat Javier Solana said Wednesday that he was "shocked" at the Palestinian leader's living conditions after nearly a month of confinement by Israeli forces. After meeting Arafat, Solana complained of "a lack of water, a lack of things necessary to have a normal life in buildings where Arafat works." He called it "a shocking situation."

Israel declared that Arafat would be isolated, blaming him for Palestinian violence, but diplomats have been breaking the Israeli shell with increasing frequency. Arafat was to meet the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers on Thursday.

Witnesses said about 10 tanks and 10 armoured vehicles entered Hebron early today. Soldiers exchanged fire with armed Palestinians and made some arrests before the forces pulled out less than two hours later, they said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Ahmed Bashir, a member of the Force 17, an elite security unit, was killed and at least four Palestinians were wounded, Palestinians said. Hebron had been left alone during Israel's West Bank offensive, except for occasional brief incursions to make arrests.

A Palestinian approached an Israeli roadblock in a car and exploded it as he tried to escape on foot, the military said. Soldiers shot and killed him.