Bush Calls on Israel to End Offensive

The president’s demand came after a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah Thursday, Israel’s re-entry into the West Bank city of Qalqilya overnight, and after new violence in the cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem.

“There has been some progress, but it’s now time to quit it altogether,” Mr. Bush said of the incursion. “It’s time to end this.”

The president also called on Palestinians to do more to curb violence against Israeli targets.

Following the president’s statement, Israel withdrew its troops from the West Bank town of Qalqilya. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told reporters that Israel had entered the city on intelligence information that “terrorists and suicide attackers” were hiding out there.

“We have no choice but to launch these incursions to prevent attacks,” Ben-Eliezer said. He told reporters the mission there would be carried out swiftly.

Colonel Shukri Abdel Hamid, the Palestinian security chief in Qalqilya, confirmed to Reuters that Israel’s troops and armored vehicles had left the city and were stationed at its perimeter.

Reports said the Israeli forces killed a militant leader and arrested more than 40 people during the raid.

Meanwhile, violence flared at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound and Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants remain locked in standoffs.

Israeli troops shot and wounded two gunmen holed up at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The shootings came after four other Palestinians surrendered and walked out of the shrine. Israeli military officials said the gunmen were spotted in the church compound and “were about to fire.”

Some 230 people, including priests, nuns and 30 alleged militants sought by the Israeli military, are believed to be inside the building. One of Christianity’s holiest sites, the church is believed to stand on the spot Jesus Christ was born.

Negotiations to end the standoff center on whether six Palestinians in the church would be transported to Gaza, as Palestinians want, or get sent into exile as Israelis demand, a Palestinian negotiator told the Associated Press. Talks between the two sides began Tuesday.

A skirmish also developed outside Arafat’s Ramallah compound Friday, with Israeli soldiers firing stun grenades and tear gas into a crowd protesting Arafat’s confinement. During the protest, Palestinians fired from a nearby rooftop and Israeli troops returned fire. Eleven people were hurt during the protest, but none from the shooting, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, Israel asked the United Nations to postpone a fact-finding mission to the Jenin refugee camp where Palestinians allege Israeli soldiers massacred civilians earlier this month. Israel claims those killed were mostly militants who were killed in pitched gun battles.

A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said questions about the mission’s scope and the investigating team’s makeup remained unresolved.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the mission would begin this weekend as scheduled.

“We are giving them the appropriate clarifications, and I do expect the team to leave tomorrow,” Annan said Friday. “I don’t think there’s any reason for further delay.”

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