A week into Israel's largest military offensive in a generation, troops on Thursday took over Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, fought intense battles with gunmen barricaded in nearby refugee camps and tightened a cordon around armed Palestinians holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
In an attempt to halt the escalating violence, President Bush planned to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, administration sources said in Washington. There was no immediate word on when Powell would arrive.
In Bethlehem, armed men inside the ancient basilica, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born, said Israeli troops blew open a metal door leading into a church courtyard and fired inside, wounding three people. The army denied soldiers made a move on the church, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, but said troops were chasing gunmen in the area.
The Israeli military prevented reporters from reaching the church to assess the rival claims. All six West Bank towns taken over by Israel in the past week have been declared closed military areas, and reporters have been ordered to leave.
Five Palestinians were killed in Thursday's fighting, including three gunmen and a church caretaker, who witnesses said was shot while walking to the Church of the Nativity from his home.
World concern for the explosive situation was growing. A senior European diplomat said U.S. mediation efforts had failed, and that Washington should step aside as primary peacemaker.
Israel, meanwhile, blocked a high-level European mediation attempt, saying European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique would not be permitted to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been in what amounts to Israeli custody for a week.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to give a fresh hearing to a U.S. request for a Zinni-Arafat meeting. Officials close to the diplomatic efforts said Sharon told Powell on Wednesday that Zinni would not be able to see Arafat.
Israel launched "Operation Defensive Shield" last Friday to crush Palestinian militias that have carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, now including seven suicide bombings in the past week. The trigger was an attack at the start of the Passover holiday that killed 26 Israelis attending a Seder, a ritual meal, in a hotel.
Since then, Israeli forces have taken over six major West Bank towns and cities -- Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Jenin, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Nablus -- and have arrested more than 1,100 Palestinians. The towns of Jericho and Hebron remained the last islands of Palestinian control in the West Bank.
In Washington Thursday, Bush urged Israel to end its military offensive and called on Arab nations to do more to crack down on terrorists. He ordered Powell to the region to carry the new message.
"The storms of violence cannot go on," Bush said. "Enough is enough."
Bush has faced mounting criticism with each new suicide bombing against Israelis and military response from Israel. He has been accused of doing too much and, by other critics, not enough. The speech was designed to prod both Israel and Palestinians to take tough steps toward peace.
To Israel, Bush called for a halt to incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas. Senior advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush believes the assaults could eventually undermine Israel's security by inciting more violence and even spread the conflict beyond the Israel-Palestinian borders.
Bush urged Israel to stop the building of settlements in Palestinian areas and "show a respect for -- and concern about -- the dignity of the Palestinian people." He said closed border crossings should be opened to allow for a freer flow of Palestinians.
"I speak as a committed friend of Israel, out of concern for its long-term security," Bush said.
To the Palestinians, Bush restated his warning that nations that help terrorists will be treated the same as terrorists. He urged Arafat and his Arab neighbors to "join us in delivering a clear and unequivocal message to terrorists: Blowing yourself up does not help the Palestinian cause. To the contrary, suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state."
He urged Arab countries to help Arafat curb terrorism, disrupt terrorist financing and stop the incitement of violence "by glorifying terror in state-owned media."
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