Talks in Ramallah, Bethlehem Progress but With No Resolution

In Ramallah, Israel is demanding the handover of the militants they believe assassinated tourism minister Rehavan Zeevi last October and are reportedly hiding in Arafat’s compound. Israel is also demanding the surrender of Fouad Shubaki, allegedly behind an intercepted shipment of 50 tons of weapons from Iran.

In response to those demands, four Palestinians were convicted for the assassination inside a makeshift courtroom in the besieged compound. Security officials acted as judges, prosecution and the defense attorney, and Arafat approved the sentences, according to aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected the move, demanding that Arafat hand the men over to Israeli authorities.

Despite this dispute, a Sharon aide said Thursday the prime minister was considering allowing Arafat to leave his West Bank offices and return to Gaza, to give him a chance to crack down on militants.

Also in the West Bank, negotiations to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem appeared to make progress with the release of nine Palestinian youths and two monks carrying two bodies. The bodies, which had been decomposing inside the church, were taken away by Palestinian ambulances.

An army spokesman said the nine youths were each given a medical checkup and food and would be allowed to go home shortly.

Talks to end the standoff were set to resume late Thursday. Wednesday’s negotiations were marred by a gunfight in which two Palestinians were killed and an Israeli soldier seriously hurt.

“There is very cautious optimism that the affair is closer to an end today than it was yesterday,” Israeli military spokesman Brig. Ron Kitrey said today.

The main sticking point in the talks has been the fate of the 200-plus Palestinians, many armed, who have been holed up in the church since April 2. Palestinian negotiators have proposed the gunmen be escorted to Gaza, but Israel demands they face trial or accept deportation outside the territories.

On Tuesday, Israeli soldiers escorted two Armenian monks out who held up a hand-drawn sign asking to be rescued. The monks told reporters gunmen had stolen religious treasures. 

In the past week, several other clerics and civilians have escaped the church or have been let out due to health problems.