Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that Israeli troops would leave Jenin within "a couple of days" and withdraw from Nablus in "not more than a week." Israeli forces will remain in Ramallah and Bethlehem until the Palestinians turned over suspected terrorists holed up in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's presidential compound and the Church of the Nativity, Sharon told CNN.
"Altogether, we are on our way out," Sharon said, adding that Israeli troops would not leave completely and would remain nearby. If the situation remained calm, the IDF would withdraw farther, Sharon said. Israeli troops reentered Tulkarm and a few other West Bank villages early Tuesday in what was described as a "limited operation." Security forces were searching for suspected terrorists and illegal weapons in the Askar refugee camp near Nablus as well. "This is not a reoccupation," one military source told Ha'aretz. "It is a limited operation to search for terrorists." The forces are expected to withdraw from Tulkarm once they conclude operations there, the army said.
Overnight, security forces operating in Beituniya arrested Jamil Tawil, the head of Hamas in Ramallah, and Ashraf Abu-Warda, commander of the Hamas's military brigade in the region. The army said the two, who are responsible for many terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens, gave themselves up to IDF forces.
Security forces went on high alert throughout Israel on Tuesday, as Palestinians threatened retaliatory actions in response to yesterday's arrest of Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti in Ramallah. Army Radio reported warnings that terrorists would attempt to kidnap IDF soldiers to use as bargaining chips for Barghouti's release. Memorial Day ceremonies at military cemeteries today will be reinforced with increased security due to warnings of possible attacks.
Standoffs in Bethlehem and Ramallah continue
"We have problems in Bethlehem," Sharon told CNN. "Terrorists took shelter in the Church of the Nativity. Once they will be leaving ... we will be leaving." Sharon said that Israel and the United States had reached an agreement on what had to be done to end the Bethlehem standoff, but the Palestinians had rejected the proposal.
"They must leave their weapons behind," Sharon said of the terrorists. "They have to come (out). They will be identified. Those who have no connection with terror will be released immediately. Those who are connected and had to do with terror and murder will be arrested." Terrorists would be given the option of standing trial in Israel, or being deported to Arab countries in the region.
Two Palestinian policemen who had taken refuge in the church surrendered to Israeli troops in Bethlehem yesterday, the army said. One reportedly had been wounding in ongoing gunfire exchanges and the other was suffering from a nervous breakdown.
Sharon said Israel will not lift the siege of Ramallah until the Palestinians turn over the killers of Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evi, and the PA's chief financial official, Fuad Shubaki, suspected of masterminding the Karine A weapons shipment. The men are suspected of hiding in Arafat's compound, but their presence there has not been confirmed by visiting journalists or diplomats.
At Sunday's cabinet meeting, Sharon insisted that the killers be tried in Israel. If the Palestinians refused to hand them over, he said, IDF forces would be authorized to enter Arafat's headquarters and take them away by force.
Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erekat called Sharon's talk of a withdrawal a "sham" and Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians would not deal with Israel on Sharon's terms. "He must leave every city that has been reoccupied without any conditions. We are not going to bargain with the Israelis over every town and village," Abed Rabbo said.
But U.S. President George W. Bush told Sharon that an Israeli pullout from Jenin and Nablus would "increase the prospects to bring peace to the region," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. Bush and Sharon spoke for fifteen minutes Monday night, officials in Sharon's office said.