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Deal to end Bethlehem standoff near, Israelis & Palestinians report

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A framework for settling the 35-day standoff at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has been agreed to, Israeli and Palestinian officials were saying May 5-6.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer confirmed May 6 that a settlement was near, The Jerusalem Post reported. Israeli troops and tanks have surrounded the church since an estimated 200-250 armed Palestinians entered the grounds in early April.

News of a pending breakthrough was first reported by Palestinian officials May 5.

According to news reports, six to 13 Palestinians sought by the Israelis as alleged terrorists would be deported to Italy, about 30 others would be sent to the Gaza Strip and the remaining Palestinians, estimated to have dwindled to less than 100, would be freed.

Also among those in the church: about 25 priests and monks and several nuns. On May 2, 10 foreign peace activists, including a Canadian filmmaker, caught Israeli soldiers off-guard and slipped into the church. Thirteen other peace activists were arrested, having served as decoys, the Palestine Chronicle reported.

The Palestinians entered the 1,400-year-old church when Israeli forces moved into Bethlehem April 2 as part of the region-wide Operation Defensive Shield sweep against Palestinian suicide bombings. Some early news reports gave April 3 as the start of the standoff.

Several Palestinians have been killed by Israeli sharpshooters or in gunfire exchanges with Israeli troops.

Four Americans were among the peace activists who entered the church May 2, according to the Palestine Chronicle: Nauman Azidi, Robert O’Neill, Larry Hales and Kristen Schurr. The Canadian filmmaker was identified as Jacqueline Soohen.

Negotiations to secure the settlement were continuing May 6 and may continue into May 7, according to a U.S. official who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity.

CNN reported May 6 that one holdup in reaching a settlement is that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is adamant that no more than six Palestinians be deported, while Israeli has held to 13.

An initial breakthrough in the talks occurred May 4 when Arafat permitted a Palestinian liaison to provide a list of 123 names of those inside the church to negotiators.

The talks involve representatives from the Israelis, Palestinians, Vatican, European Union and United States. Among those leading the Israeli team is Omri Sharon, son of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, while Mohammed Rashid, a key economic adviser to Arafat, is heading the Palestinian delegation.

A May 5 meeting of the Palestinian leadership and a subsequent meeting of 150 Palestinians in Ramallah, Arafat’s headquarters city, were marked by heavy dissention over calls for reform and demands for the removal of several Arafat deputies, The New York Times reported.

“Some believe we should send suicide bombers to Israel and others, no,” the Palestinian information minister, Yasir Abed Rabbo, told The Times. “We cannot lead the battle through 10 leadership opinions, 10 plans and 10 positions.”

Ariel Sharon, who is scheduled to meet with President Bush May 7 in Washington, had announced his intention to present U.S. officials with 100 pages of documents purportedly establishing Arafat’s direct involvement in payments to alleged terrorists.