Powell sent to Middle East to seek peace treaty

JERUSALEM – Fierce fighting raged in the West Bank and missiles rained on Israel’s northern border Thursday as the Israeli government stepped up efforts to discredit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a partner for peace.

Arafat spent his seventh day under house arrest, restricted to a few rooms of his compound in Ramallah. Israel prevented a high-level European mediation team from visiting Arafat, but later said U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni could see him, probably Friday. Zinni has been in the Middle East trying to mediate a cease-fire between Arafat and Sharon.

In Washington, President Bush for the first time called on Israel to end its military offensive, and announced that he would also send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region next week. Both Israeli and Palestinian authorities issued statements welcoming Bush’s words and Powell’s mission, but the forces on the ground did not change.

In Bethlehem, Israeli forces and 250 Palestinian fighters continued their tense standoff at the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s most sacred sites. Palestinians claimed that Israelis blew open a door of the church; Israelis denied it.

At least five Palestinians were killed Thursday, including the church’s bell ringer. Four Israeli troops also died.

In the West Bank cities of Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Tulkarem and Qalqiliya, Israeli troops consolidated their control, roaming the streets in tanks and going door-to-door. By Thursday night, they had detained 1,100 Palestinians for questioning.

Only two large urban areas on the West Bank remained under Palestinian control Thursday night – the biblical towns of Jericho and Hebron.

For the third straight day, no suicide bombing or other attack rocked Israel. But the threat of a wider regional conflict intensified amid reports that nine missiles were fired from Lebanon on an Israeli radar station in the disputed Shebaa Farms border area.

In recent days, guerrillas from the radical Hezbollah organization in southern Lebanon have launched an increasing number of rocket and other attacks on Israeli border facilities. Late Thursday, Sharon accused Iran and Syria of aiding the border attacks, the latest of which apparently caused no casualties.

In an intriguing new dimension to 18 months of fighting, Israel released documents that it said show a direct link between Arafat and suicide bombings.

“The consequences are very clear,” said Dan Meridor, a minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government. “Mr. Arafat is running a terrorist organization. . . . He is quite deeply involved in paying money to terrorists.”

Samir Rantisi, a spokesman for Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, cast doubt on the authenticity and relevance of the documents, although he stopped short of calling them outright forgeries.

“We are unable to say whether they are authentic or forged,” he said. “We view them as something they are using as propaganda against the Palestinian people.

The Israelis are experts at fabricating things. They are capable of forging these documents.”

Israeli officials said two faxes seized from Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah and signed by him authorized cash payments to 15 men previously identified as terrorists. The men planned or launched recent suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians, the government said.