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Ramallah Deal Reached, Arafat Siege Lifted

The transfer is the final step of a negotiated deal to end the siege of the Palestinian leader’s compound.

The six Palestinians will be guarded by Palestinian Authority police and overseen by American and British wardens in a Jericho jail. Israel has said it will then pull tanks and soldiers out of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. According to CNN and others, Israeli troops have been seen packing up their supplies.

“Ramallah will be freed by tanks immediately after the prisoners leave the compound,” Mohammed Rashid, an Arafat adviser directly involved in the negotiations, said.

However at midday, Israeli radio was reporting that there was a hitch in the talks.

Last week, four of the men were tried in a makeshift Palestinian court and convicted of killing Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi last October. The other two are Ahmed Saadat, leader of the radical PLO faction that carried out the assassination, and Fuad Shobaki, the alleged mastermind behind a Palestinian arms shipment intercepted at sea by the Israeli Navy in January.

The men have been holed up in Arafat’s offices since the end of March, when Israeli troops entered the Palestinian leader?s compound following a suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, two Palestinian policemen left Wednesday after one of them was injured by Israeli fire. The two were escorted by priests who handed them to Israeli troops.

On Tuesday, 26 Palestinians left the church. After several hours of questioning, 25 were released and one was taken to an Israeli hospital.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are still in disagreement about how to end the almost month-long stand off. Nearly 200 people remain in the church, including several dozen gunmen wanted by Israeli authorities. Israel insists the militants either surrender or accept exile outside the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians want the men to be released in Gaza.

Meanwhile, there are reports that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is considering canceling plans for a U.N. fact-finding mission to the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of the fiercest fighting in Israel’s military offensive.

Palestinian officials said Wednesday that 58 bodies had been recovered so far, maintaining that Israeli forces massacred civilians. Israeli officials deny that there was a massacre and claim that most of the bodies are gunmen who died in fierce house-to-house battles.

A U.S. human rights group released a preliminary report Wednesday saying that the scene does not suggest a massacre by Israel’s army but does reveal an urgent need for an inquiry and protection of forensic evidence at the site.

Annan will announce his decision after talks with the Security Council.

There was more violence in Gaza Wednesday. According to Palestinian witnesses, a roadside bomb exploded near an Israeli tank and then Israel fired into a nearby neighborhood, killing a 2-year-old girl and a mentally handicapped man. Two more Palestinians were killed in a gunfight in the Rafah refugee camp, a Palestinian official said.

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