Nativity church siege continues as Italy turns down exile plan


THE MIDDLE EAST: The deal was done. After a crisis that had preoccupied a watching world for more than a month, the dozens of Palestinians, clerics and international activists holed up in the Israeli-encircled Church of the Nativity were about to emerge.

The fate of more than three dozen Palestinians, wanted by Israel, had been resolved: 26 were to be escorted to the Gaza Strip, and the other 13, alleged by Israel to have been involved in attacks, were to be deported to Italy.

"We've signed off on the agreement," announced Israel's Defence Minister, Mr Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. The Palestinian Authority President, Mr Yasser Arafat, has also approved the deal, said one of his aides. The wanted men themselves were said to have given their individual consent to the agreement.

There was only one hitch: Apparently nobody had bothered to tell the Italians that 13 men, said by Israel to be hard-core terrorists, were heading their way - never mind resolving how long they would be staying under Rome's supervision, and whether they ought to be jailed there or set free. The Italians were clearly furious at the lack of consultation, and were reportedly even preparing to close their air space to the British plane that would have delivered the 13. "We were treated in an arrogant and intolerable way," said one Italian government official. "We were kept in the dark. This is a shameful indecency."

But they were not entirely ruling out playing host, especially after US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, called the Italian Prime Minister, Mr Silvio Berlusconi, to implore him to help end a stand-off that has seen the traditional birthplace of Jesus drawn into the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and subjected to gun-battles, intermittent mini-fires and reported looting.

"The government is ready to do everything possible for the peace process to resume," said Italy's Defence Minister, Mr Antonio Martino. "This thing about hosting Palestinian terrorists to facilitate the process will be studied."

As Italy played tough, the frustrated dealmakers - including officials from the European Union, the US and the Vatican - frantically sought alternate destinations but came up empty-handed. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for instance, all firmly rejected involvement in a solution that is being castigated by Hamas, three of whose men are among the 13, and by Mr Arafat's Fatah faction, to which nine of the other 10 are affiliated. (Among the Fatah men are Mr Ibrahim Abayat, accused by Israel of killing two Israelis and an American, and Mr Mohammad Said, alleged to have organised two suicide bombings in Jerusalem in which 11 people were killed. The 13th man is Mr Abdullah Daoud, Mr Arafat's Bethlehem intelligence chief, who denies a welter of Israeli allegations concerning involvement in shooting attacks.) Mr Aziz Abayat, a 21-year-old Hamas member, alleged by Israel to have manufactured explosives and dispatched two suicide bombers on a failed attack, said the group's leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, had telephoned him to urge him not to accept exile.

The 36-day siege began when the wanted men and dozens of others fled to the church to escape Israeli troops, who had launched a massive military incursion in response to a spate of suicide bombings. Some 200 people were inside the compound, of whom about 75 have since emerged.

In Gaza yesterday, Israeli troops shot dead a 17-year-old Palestinian.

Israeli army sources said their troops had come under fire; Palestinian witnesses said the soldiers were destroying a building.

In a raid on the West Bank city of Tulkarm, Israel made 40 arrests, and Mr Ben-Eliezer said two of those held had been poised to attempt suicide bombings.