Standoff affirms Arafat's primacy

The Palestinian leader energized talks on the Church of the Nativity standoff this weekend.

Bethlehem - Released last week from his Ramallah headquarters – under an Israeli siege for a month – Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is moving to prove he is essential.

After weeks of fruitless discussions by his underlings in the Church of the Nativity standoff, Mr. Arafat kick-started real talks on Saturday by ordering Palestinians in the holy site to meet an Israeli demand for a list of all their names.

The move appeared to complicate the task of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who arrived in Washington on Sunday in hopes of persuading President Bush that Arafat is irrelevant and should be sidelined in the search for peace in the Middle East.

At press time Sunday, three top Arafat aides were negotiating with Israeli intelligence officials over the number and fate of wanted men among the 123 Palestinians trapped in the church for the past month by Israeli soldiers.

Local Palestinian leaders from Bethlehem had repeatedly refused to give the Israelis such a list until Israel allowed food into the church. Arafat reversed that stand Saturday. After a leader of the gunmen handed the list to a European mediator late on Saturday night, the Israelis – for the first time in over a month – permitted him to deliver a limited amount of food and cigarettes, according to sources close to the talks.

Delays yesterday dimmed hopes that the standoff would be over by the end of Orthodox Christian Easter Sunday. Negotiators were haggling over how many of the gunmen should go free, and what should happen to the rest of them.

Making a list, checking it twice

Israel is demanding that at least seven of the men it regards as the most serious terrorists should be permanently deported to Jordan, if not tried in Israeli courts.

Palestinian negotiators have insisted that such men be tried in Palestinian courts in Gaza. The negotiatiors are believed also to be considering other options, which have not been revealed.

The talks gathered pace over the weekend, when Arafat put his top financial adviser, Mohammed Rashid, in charge of negotiations, which also involve one of his senior security chiefs, Mohammed Dahlan.

Responding to strong US pressure, according to diplomats here, Arafat or- dered a list drawn up of all the Palestinians in the church. At around 10:30 p.m. Saturday, European envoy Alastair Crook stepped into the candle-lit interior of the church to receive the list, which he later handed to an American diplomat, according to Palestinian negotiators Salah Taamri.

The Israelis had previously supplied the US consulate in Jerusalem with a list of wanted men they believed to be in the church. US diplomats matched the lists, and provided each side with the names that appeared on both.

Though Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating over the list directly, the key role played by US and European diplomats over the weekend, which they continue to play, illustrates once again the need for outside intervention to resolve their differences.

"The situation is so fraught...the difficulties of communication between the two sides are so great, that a solution is almost inconceivable without international involvement," said one Western diplomat here.

The way the talks have unfolded also underlines how critical is Arafat's leadership. The leaders of those trapped in the church have repeatedly said they would follow only his instructions, but during his month of house arrest in his headquarters in Ramallah the Palestinian chief was unable to communicate freely with his officials, and could not play a commanding role in negotiations.

'An explosive mix'

His authority is likely to be tested, however, if he orders any of the gunmen to give themselves up to a fate they refuse to accept, such as exile. Separating the trapped Palestinians into different groups subject to different treatment, and persuading the armed men to lay down their guns, could prove just as difficult as agreeing which men should go free.

"How the solution is managed inside [the church] is just as important as the outcome itself," says a western diplomat. "There is quite an explosive mix of people and groups in there.

"The process of untying the knot will have to be done quite carefully," he adds.

The danger, warns one source familiar with the situation, is that if wanted gunmen do not accept an agreement reached by Palestinian officials, they might take their fellow captives hostage.

The Israeli army has so far not treated the Nativity church standoff in the fashion commonly adopted to deal with hostage crises, which calls for efforts to calm the situation, and to establish confidence and communication between those inside and outside.

Instead, the Israelis have done their best to keep the gunmen on edge, refusing them food until Saturday night, playing loud music and noises some nights to keep them awake, and sniping at anything that moves inside the church, often through the windows. Six men have been killed in the church since the standoff began.

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