Palestinian officials said today that an agreement was reached in principle to end the month-long standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Israeli officials said that progress had been made, but that no agreement had been reached.
"The deal consists of six to eight people to be (deported to) Italy and more than 30 to Gaza," said Hassan Abed Rabbo, a senior Fatah member. The Palestinians transferred to Gaza would be imprisoned under American and British supervision in a deal similar to the agreement that ended Israel's siege of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound.
Abed Rabbo said the men deported would assume "temporary residence abroad" and would be "hosted in Italy." The Palestinian leadership had repeatedly made statements rejecting the possibility of exiling any of the militants holed up inside the church compound.
Palestinian sources said the end of Israel's siege of the church would take place as early as Monday morning. "We received orders to prepare to leave the church within hours," one of the Palestinians inside the church told ynet.
Palestinian officials said that Arafat had accepted the proposal, and that among the men to be sent to Italy would be Ibrahim Abayat, a member of a Beit Jala family that orchestrated frequent gunfire attacks at Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, and Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian Authority's director of intelligence in Bethlehem, the New York Times reported. But Israeli media sources reported Monday that Ibrahim Abayat had been arrested last night by IDF troops in a house several hundred meters from the church.
Palestinian officials said the accord was reached through the mediation of representatives from the United States, Britain, the Vatican and the European Union. Under the terms of the reported agreement, IDF forces would withdraw from Bethlehem, the only Palestinian city in which they maintain a presence after completing Operation Defensive Shield.
"There is no agreement yet," said Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikai. "They are negotiating our demands for people to be deported," he told the Associated Press, refusing to comment on the details under discussion.
"As far as we are concerned, we've got some progress regarding the framework for an agreement, and we hope the agreement will be final as soon as possible, because Israel wants to end this crisis," said Ofir Gandelman, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.
But Yediot Aharonot reported that Israeli sources had confirmed that an agreement had been reached. "There are still delays and loose ends to tie up," one source said. "Only in the coming hours will it become clear whether it will be possible to honor this agreement."
Intense high-level talks
Progress towards an agreement came after a day of intense, high-level talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials. The Shin Bet security service took responsibility for the negotiations, which also included representatives from the CIA, Ha'aretz reported. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was also personally involved in the talks, media sources said.
"There are 123 people inside, 10 of them are on Israel's most-wanted list and there are other armed terrorists (there)," an Israeli military source told Reuters.
Officials from both sides reviewed a list of the people inside the church compound. Arafat issued orders to release the list, which was turned over to American and European negotiators after they increased their involvement in the attempts to end the standoff. "Apparently Washington is really interested and pressing for a fast solution," said Salah Tamari, a Palestinian negotiator.
Disagreements between Israel and the Palestinians centered on how many of the names on the list were people that would be deported. Israel knew about the leading terrorists inside the church, but wanted the list to review lower-level suspects, Ha'aretz reported.
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