At the Scene
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining me by phone is James Bennet, The New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. Thanks for being with us, Jim. What’s the latest in the Israeli military operation today?
JAMES BENNET: Well, there’s continued fierce fighting in several areas in the West Bank in Nablus and the city of Jenin in the North. At least 22 Palestinians have died in the fighting today, and at least one Israeli soldier. There was an Israeli strike in the village of Tubas, which is also in the northern West Bank. They killed six members of the Islamic group Hamas, including the military leader of Hamas in the West Bank, who is the man that Israel blames for that very deadly suicide bombing last week in Netanya during a Passover Seder.
In addition, there is more activity tonight on the northern border. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah fired more anti-tank grenades at Israeli positions, and Israeli warplanes that struck back in southern Lebanon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Jim, you’ve been in Bethlehem today. Tell us what is happening there.
JAMES BENNET: Well, the standoff we’ve seen now for several days in the Church of the Nativity, which is the church that Christians believe marks the spot where Jesus Christ was born, continues. There are still Palestinian gunmen holed up in that church. Negotiators are still trying to get them out. Four clerics escaped from the church today. Israel says that they were being held hostage and managed to get out. People inside the church that we’ve talked to insist that nobody is being held against their will, but they do say that their food is running out. The Franciscan Brothers that live there have shared their food, apparently, with the people that are hiding inside there, and everybody is running low.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Jim, has the President’s speech yesterday calling for a halt to the incursions made any difference?
JAMES BENNET: No. Nothing… no sign of any halt or any withdrawal yet. In fact, if anything, there’s been an acceleration in the mission, because some Israeli officials say that they now feel like the clock is ticking. President Bush said yesterday that he would send Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, to the region next week. And at least some officials say they feel like they have to have the operation, if not wrapped up, at least have it subside by the time Powell gets here. And they have a lot of business they want to get done before that happens.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what’s been the reaction of Prime Minister Sharon to the speech?
JAMES BENNET: Well, stony silence, I think, is the way I would describe it. And indication from the people around him that he’s not… he’s not terribly happy with it. They were surprised, even shocked, I think, by the President’s call for a halt to the operation. Prime Minister Sharon was informed of it only shortly before President Bush spoke, from what I was told. And I think they’re still trying to assess how strict the Bush administration is going to be in following through on President Bush’s demand. We haven’t had much clarity yet from Washington today. We haven’t had a clear statement as to whether or not they are satisfied with the Israeli response.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And U.S. Envoy Zinni did meet with Arafat today. What happened?
JAMES BENNET: Well, again, we are see something slight divergence between the Israeli and the American policies toward the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon did not want to see General Zinni meet with Arafat. He has been trying to isolate Yasser Arafat diplomatically in Ramallah, where his office is completely encircled now by Israeli forces. General Zinni argued with him, got permission to go in, and apparently reached an agreement with Arafat by which Arafat was to name a committee of Palestinians to begin meeting directly with Zinni in preparation for Colin Powell’s visit. That first meeting was supposed to take place tonight, but Israel has blocked it from happening.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what is the Israeli defense force leadership saying about how long it might take to complete this operation?
JAMES BENNET: Well, they’ve been saying they need four to six weeks to root out what they call the terrorist infrastructure, and round up the wanted men that Israel has for many months been asking the Palestinian Authority to arrest. And the Israeli officials have simply given up now on the prospect of Palestinian security ever complying with those requests. They say they have to do it themselves. In addition, they’re trying to destroy weapons laboratories, round up all weapons that are illegal under the Oslo Accord that the two sides have agreed to. This is a multi-week operation. It’s a complex, difficult undertaking, and all of the sudden they find themselves trying to recalibrate in the wake of President Bush’s remarks last night.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: James Bennet, thanks for being with us.
JAMES BENNET: Thank you.