Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met Tuesday at a tourism center in the city’s Manger Square. Although Bethlehem mayor Hanna Nasser said the first round of talks was “constructive,” Palestinian negotiator Salah Taamari later said there were “still some tough points” to be tackled. The talks are expected to reconvene Wednesday.
Israeli officials say hundreds of Palestinian gunmen, along with several priests and nuns, remain holed up in the church, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born. Some recent reports say that water is running out and people inside the church are getting sick.
Earlier Tuesday, three Armenian priests emerged from the compound after raising a sign reading “please help,” the Israeli military said.
Israel has demanded that the gunmen either surrender and stand trial in Israel or agree to be deported out of the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians say there are only a few dozen people inside the church. Palestinian negotiators are reportedly pushing for Israel to agree to let the men go to the Gaza Strip.
Also Tuesday, an explosion was reported at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat?s Ramallah compound. Arafat’s aides said the blast occurred in an empty building next to Arafat’s office. There are no reports of injuries.
The Israeli army said the blast was a controlled explosion to blow up weapons found inside buildings.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a three-phase peace plan that he said could begin with a U.S.-sponsored summit.
Speaking to an American lobbying group via satellite, Sharon said his campaign in Palestinian areas was successful and had opened a “window of opportunity” to put the peace process back on track.
“A regional peace conference sponsored by the United States can create the framework and modalities to bring about a cessation of hostilities,” Sharon said.
Sharon also called on countries to condemn and fight growing anti-Semitism around the world.
In the West Bank, targeted fighting continues. In Hebron Monday night, two Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a car, according to the Palestinian News Agency. Two men were reported killed, one of them identified as a local leader of the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
One Israeli soldier and two Palestinians were killed in Nablus when a small elite Israeli military unit exchanged gunfire with Palestinian gunmen. The Israeli army said the gunmen were members of the Islamic group Hamas and accused them of taking part in other attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank.
Late Tuesday, the governments of Greece and Turkey — who have a long history of mutual distrust and hostility — made a surprise announcement that they would lead a peace mission to the Middle East.
Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem, credited with improving bilateral relations, will hold talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, officials said Tuesday.
“Two countries that have been through many hard times of hostility and rivalry … and have managed to create peace and normality in the area are taking a joint initiative,” Greek government spokesman Christos Protopapas told reporters.