Battles Flare As Partial Israeli Withdrawal Continues

Two Palestinians, identified as members of the militant group Hamas, and an Israeli soldier died in a skirmish in the northern West Bank, officials say. In the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers killed two gunmen on the edge of the Bureij refugee camp.

Another Palestinian died when Palestinian gunmen pulled him and two others from their car and opened fire. The other two men were wounded in the attacks. Witnesses say the gunmen, who claimed to be militia members linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement, accused the men of serving as Israeli informants.

Observers said there were no Palestinian law enforcers available to stop the shootings or hold back the surrounding crowd because many Palestinian police have been killed or detained since Israeli troops began intense occupation on March 29.

Also Monday, gunfire erupted near Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Israelis suspect hundreds of armed Palestinians are hiding. The church, built on a site recognized as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is surrounded by Israeli troops. Priest and nuns who have chosen to remain inside have said the occupants are dangerously low on food and water.

As tanks rolled out of the West Bank Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his country’s three-week-old offensive was over.

“We have finished this stage” of the military operation, Sharon said. “We have achieved very profound results, but the struggle against terrorism continues.”

Sharon said the military will now employ a “different method” to fight terrorism, but did not elaborate.

American envoy William Burns traveled to Yasser Arafat’s compound Monday for two hours of talks with the Palestinian leader. Burns was expected to discuss ways to facilitate a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, but both sides had little positive to say about the meeting.

Arafat’s headquarters remains surrounded by Israeli forces, who claim Palestinian militants are hiding out inside.

Meanwhile, Palestinians returning to their homes and offices say they found unnecessary instances of destruction and stealing. Among the areas ransacked, officials say, were the Palestinian government’s ministry offices.

“Our ministries were nearly completely destroyed,” Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said. “This was not done as a mistake in one or two places. This was done in every single ministry.”

In response, Israel said they had to take away information that would be useful in tracking terrorists and uncovering the encouragement of suicide bombers.

Human rights groups have repeatedly called on Israel to allow investigations into recent attacks on Palestinian-held cities — especially in the town of Jenin where Palestinians claim hundreds of people were massacred. Israel agreed to allow a fact-finding team into the area on Friday, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan named three people to lead the fact-finding mission.

One of the members of the mission, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, said he hoped to be in the region by the end of the week.

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