Somethings Betther

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Israel ignores Bush pullout call Relief for one Israeli soldier pulling out of Bethlehem Israel is pressing ahead with its military thrust into Palestinian territory in the West Bank, despite a new US initiative to halt the bloodshed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his army's occupation of six Palestinian towns was justified because "negotiating before terror is subdued will only lead to its continuation".

Mr Sharon said military operations would continue The Palestinian leadership has welcomed Thursday's declaration by President George W Bush, which called for an end to violence and for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank towns it has reoccupied.

Latest reports say at least seven Palestinians, including six fighters and one unarmed civilian, were killed in pre-dawn clashes in Nablus - while the army has also met stiff resistance in Jenin.

In order to reach the political process with the Palestinians that Israel eminently desires, Palestinian terror and its organisers must be defeated first Israel Government statement A standoff between troops and gunmen sheltering with civilians in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - where some of the fiercest recent fighting has been focused - is continuing for a fourth day.

The bloodshed comes ahead of renewed contact between the US envoy to the region, Anthony Zinni, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been besieged in his Ramallah headquarters for a week.

BBC Middle East correspondent Paul Wood says the meeting - due at 0900 GMT - represents a U-turn by Mr Sharon in response to US pressure, after his government had decided to hold Mr Arafat in complete isolation.

Pressure on Israel Israel says it is now holding 900 Palestinian prisoners.

Click here for map of Israeli operation Its campaign began on 29 March in response to a series of deadly suicide bombings.

The army says it has netted two anti-tank grenade launchers and 50 grenades, 26 machine guns, 9 bombs, four belts for suicide bombers, dozens of boxes of ammunition, explosives and 2,000 rifles and pistols.

But pressure is building to end the operation - with the UN Security Council unanimously passing a resolution calling on Israel to pull back "without delay".

It is the third time in a month the US has supported resolutions regarding Israel, having blocked them for more than a year.

Mr Bush's declaration on Thursday called on Israel to halt settlement activity, to pull out of the Palestinian territories defined in UN resolutions, and to "spare innocent Palestinians daily humiliation at checkpoints".

UN Security Council resolution 1403 Reaffirms previous two resolutions (1397 and 1402) Gravely concerned at situation on the ground Demands implementation of resolution 1402 without delay Welcomes US Secretary of State's mission and Russian, EU and UN peace efforts He also announced the dispatch of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region next week - taking US diplomatic engagement in the spiralling conflict to a new level.

But he warned Palestinians that "suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state".

And he called on Mr Arafat to crack down on "terrorist networks" behind suicide bombings in Israel, and said that America "recognises Israel's right to defend itself from terror".

Bethlehem standoff