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Siege in Bethlehem Continues As Exile of Gunmen Disputed

By Doug Struck
THE WASHINGTON POST -- bethlehem, West bank

A dispute over how many Palestinian gunmen will be exiled to Italy delayed resolution of the siege of the Church of the Nativity Monday, but Israeli and Palestinian sources said they still expected the standoff to end soon.

After agreeing on the outline of a plan to end the 35-day siege, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators remained at odds over the number of those who would be deported, with the Palestinians insisting on six and Israel on 13 or 14, according to those familiar with the talks.

“We are just waiting for clarification of some numbers,” said Canon Andrew White, the Anglican envoy to the Middle East, who is involved in the negotiations.

Under the deal, about 30 others would be taken from the church to the Gaza Strip to appear before a Palestinian court on charges involving attacks on Israelis. Israeli troops would then withdraw from Bethlehem, allowing the departure of more than 120 people -- clergy members, nuns and Palestinians -- confined to the church since gunmen took refuge there April 2.

The outlines of the arrangement were approved by Israeli officials and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat early Monday morning. But negotiations stalled throughout the day.

“There’s certainly a framework. But we haven’t hammered out the details,” said a spokesman for the Israeli army, Capt. Jacob Dallal.

Palestinian and church sources also said a snag developed over an Israeli demand that the Palestinians be exiled under order of an Israeli court.

“We will never accept that,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister. “They want to have their law to be applicable in the Palestine areas. They want their law overriding our law.”

Arafat’s approval of deportation was a significant reversal. Palestinian negotiators had rejected exile as a betrayal of their goal of statehood.

“It was always taboo with the Palestinians,” said Mitri Abu Aitah, one of the local Bethlehem officials who opposed exile, but was overruled by Arafat. “In principle, if you accept exile for these people, you might have to accept exile for thousands of others.”

But both sides have come under increasing pressure from U.S., European and Vatican intermediaries to end the siege. A resolution would allow President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to meet Tuesday in a less strained atmosphere.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that a deal was “near. We need one or two little problems solved.”