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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighting Escalates as Sharon Eyes Arafat's Exile

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israeli tanks and helicopters Tuesday shelled a heavily fortified Palestinian security headquarters in an all-night assault to flush out top fugitives as fighting raged outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and Israel's prime minister proposed exile for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

At least 20 of the hundreds of people trapped inside the security compound were wounded, said Jibril Rajoub, the West Bank's Palestinian security chief.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday he has proposed that European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos or other diplomats fly Arafat into exile, raising the idea in public for the first time. Sharon said such a step would still require Cabinet approval.

"I told [Moratinos], if they would like, they will fly with a helicopter and will take [Arafat] from here," Sharon said during a tour of West Bank army bases, in remarks carried by Israel Radio. "[Arafat] will not be able to return."

Arafat has been in Israeli confinement in an office in his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah since Friday. In announcing the decision last week, Sharon left open the possibility that Arafat could be expelled later.

Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said that Arafat "will not leave Palestine -- this is the final return, no more refuge."

In Bethlehem, the heaviest fighting ranged around Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. An Israeli helicopter gunship hovering over the square exchanged fire with about a dozen gunmen near the church, a broadcast by the local Shepherds TV station showed.

About 100 meters away, there was a heavy exchange of fire outside the Santa Maria Convent. The Rome-based missionary news service Misna said an Italian priest, Jacques Amateis, 65, was killed. Witnesses in Bethlehem said 18 nuns were also in the convent and that gunmen were shooting from near the convent at Israeli troops. The military said gunmen were firing from inside the convent. Tuesday's fighting came as Israel widened its five-day military offensive, "Operation Protective Wall," against Palestinian militants responsible for a wave of anti-Israeli terror attacks, including six suicide bombings in the past six days.

Early Tuesday, Israeli tanks rolled into the West Bank towns of Tulkarem and Bethlehem. Israeli forces already control the towns of Ramallah and Qalqiliya.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a moderate, said the offensive would last about three to four weeks, the first senior Israeli official to give a timeframe. However, Sharon has said the campaign was open-ended.

In Ramallah, about 700 Palestinian suspects have been rounded up since Friday, said an Israeli army spokesman, Brigadier General Ron Kitrey. In all, the bodies of 25 Palestinians killed in the Israeli incursion in Ramallah were stored at the morgue of Ramallah Hospital, with doctors saying Israeli troops have barred them from burying the dead.

In the Ramallah suburb of Beituniya, Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships shelled the Palestinian Preventive Security Service headquarters in an all-night assault after about 400 people inside refused to surrender. Kitrey said he believed top militants were being sheltered in the compound. Rajoub denied this.

Earlier Tuesday, a 60-year-old Palestinian security guard was shot to death in Bethlehem and an Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper near the city.

In other incursions Tuesday, Israeli troops also moved into the town of Beit Jalla and the village of Al Khader near Bethlehem. In Beit Jalla, Israeli forces imposed a curfew and occupied buildings commanding the high ground over Bethlehem. Seven foreign protesters were injured, none seriously, when an Israeli soldier fired into the ground in front of them as they marched in Beit Jalla.

Despite the military offensive, attacks on Israelis continued. Near downtown Jerusalem, an Israeli policeman stopped a suspicious car Monday evening, and the driver detonated an explosive, killing them both. Police said the Palestinian driver was planning an attack in the center of the city. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

Also late Monday, Palestinians opened fire on an Israeli car in the West Bank, wounding three members of a family. Israeli soldiers fired back, killing one of the gunmen, the military said.

In the Jewish settlement of Ramon in the West Bank, a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a home early Tuesday, injuring one resident before he was shot dead by Israeli forces, police said.

Near the Jewish settlement of Kohav Hashahar, two Palestinians were killed when shots were fired at their car. Israel Radio said police were checking whether the two Palestinian motorists were attacked by Jewish extremists.

On another front, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon fired two rockets at Israel, the military said. The rockets exploded harmlessly in fields.

As Israeli forces advanced into West Bank cities, Palestinian militants were killing suspected Palestinian informers. Palestinian security sources said Monday that 10 bodies were found in the West Bank. The dead included seven who were taken by militants from a temporary jail and shot in the streets of Tulkarem.