West Bank fighting spreads despite peace plea

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Pope John Paul II added his voice yesterday to the chorus of international concern over the Middle East conflict as the shells and bullets drew closer to Christ's birth place. It was the fourth day of the deepest raids by Israel into Palestinian-controlled areas since the Oslo peace process began in 1993.

One day after a 19-year-old Palestinian was killed in the vicinity of Bethlehem's Manger Square – close to the presumed birthplace of Jesus – the pontiff lamented the arrival of "war and death" at a sacred place, and warned of "a path of death and destruction".

The Christian world has been watching anxiously as the worsening conflict edges nearer to one of its most sacred sites. Anxiety grew with reports from Palestinians that an Israeli shell landed only 50 yards from the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, which marks Christ's birthplace, wounding two people.

Three more people were killed around Bethlehem and a 10-year-old girl was shot dead in her home in Jenin, bringing the death toll to more than two dozen – all but one of them Palestinian – since Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, launched the latest military drive into the West Bank after the assassination of his ultra-right Tourism Minister, Rechavam Zeevi, last Wednesday.

The Israeli army retained its choke-hold on six of the eight main West Bank towns, with troops in Area A – zones that are supposed to be under full Palestinian security and administrative control.

The worst violence was in Bethlehem, where Israel says it was compelled to send in forces to end Palestinian shooting and mortar attacks on the Jewish settlement of Gilo.

Israeli tanks advanced further into Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority's West Bank administrative centre, 10 miles north of Jerusalem. Palestinians said Israeli soldiers took over the Palestinian local government ministry office.

Bethlehem was engaged in a publicity drive to alert the outside world to its plight. Hanna Nasser, the Mayor, condemned Mr Sharon's "aggressive, sadist policy". The council sent protest letters to the US, the UN, the Vatican and cities twinned with Bethlehem.

Mr Sharon told his cabinet that the army had no interest in staying in the Palestinian areas. And Israeli officials said the military offensive was not intended to topple Mr Arafat, but to force him to crack down on militants – specifically by extraditing members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has said it killed Mr Zeevi.

Mr Arafat's security forces have reportedly arrested about 20 PFLP members. He is unlikely to hand them to Israel. Many Palestinians regard Mr Zeevi's assassination as just revenge for the assassination by Israel of the PFLP leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, in August.

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