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Fighting Intensifies in Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin

Three explosions and heavy machinegun fire were reported near Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, built on the site said to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Israeli soldiers have reportedly tightened their cordon around the church, where some 200 Palestinians are believed to be hiding.

Some of the armed men inside the church claim that Israeli soldiers blew one of the church’s metal doors open and fired inside, wounding three people. Israeli officials denied those claims, but said soldiers have been chasing down armed gunmen in the area.

Mazen Hassan, a Palestinian policeman in the church, told the Associated Press he and other armed men were close to the door when it was blown open. The reporter speaking to Hassan by telephone could hear the sounds of gunfire in the background, but Hassan said Palestinians were not shooting back.

Col. Marcel Aviv, an Israeli officer trying to negotiate an end to the church standoff, told Reuters that Israel was “weighing all the possibilities so that in the end we will get all the people out.”

Aviv said Israel had “no intention of harming a Christian holy site.”

Reporters were not allowed near the church to independently evaluate the Palestinian claims, news agencies say. All six of the West Bank towns and cities invaded before Thursday — Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Jenin, Tulkarem, Bethlehem and Nablus — have been declared closed military zones, and journalists have been told to keep out.

Israeli armored vehicles reportedly rolled into a seventh city on Thursday. Witnesses say scores of tanks, armored personnel carriers and military jeeps entered the Palestinian-governed half of Hebron, Reuters reported. Palestinians there mounted only scattered resistance to the incursion.

Soldiers entering Nablus, the West Bank’s largest town, however, have reportedly met heavy Palestinian opposition. Witnesses told Reuters that Israeli tanks shelled a refugee camp near the city and took the city’s main square.

Meanwhile, fierce gunfights erupted in the Jenin refugee camp, where hundreds of gunmen are believed to be hiding. Published reports say Israeli soldiers have moved from house to house, backed by helicopters and tanks, to try to root out militants. Witnesses told Reuters battles were raging throughout the city and four helicopter gunships were firing on the town and a nearby camp.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israeli troops have arrested more than 1,000 Palestinians in their West Bank operation.

Israel launched the latest incursion into Palestinian-held territory — a mission they call “Operation Defensive Shield” — after a suicide bomber killed 26 Israelis in an attack on a hotel March 27. The attack was just one in a series of deadly suicide bombings against Israeli targets.

The incursion has not stopped the bombings, however; seven suicide attacks against Israelis have occurred in the past week alone.

In all, at least 1,161 Palestinians and 410 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian revolt against occupation flared 18 months ago.

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