26 Palestinians Leave Church of Nativity

One by one, a small group of Palestinians slowly emerged from the Church of Nativity here Tuesday in the largest exit from the church since it came under siege four weeks ago.

Twenty-six civilians and police officers walked through the low-slung door at the church, which was built at the traditional birthplace of Christ.

Israel, meanwhile, defied the United Nations and blocked an inquiry into fighting at the Jenin refugee camp where Palestinians claim Israeli soldiers conducted a massacre of civilians in eight-days of house-to-house fighting.

U.N. diplomats said Secretary-General Kofi Annan was leaning toward disbanding the mission. Annan said he had done everything possible to meet Israeli demands to modify the mission.

In the West Bank town of Jericho, U.S. and British security experts toured the local prison Tuesday in another step in a U.S.-backed deal designed to release Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from months of Israeli confinement.

Six Palestinians who are wanted by Israel and are holed up in Arafat's besieged headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah would be moved to the Jericho prison under U.S. and British supervision, paving the way for Arafat to leave his compound. Palestinian officials said the prisoner transfer could take place within 24 hours, but Israel said there was no agreed upon timetable.

U.S. and British security experts met with Palestinian officials in Ramallah late Tuesday to finalize the technical details of the prisoner transfer.

Yarden Vatikay, an adviser to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said Israel would not withdraw tanks from Arafat's compound until he received word from U.S. officials that the prisoners were in Jericho.

Late Tuesday, a 2-year-old girl was killed when Israeli tanks opened fire near the Gaza-Egypt border, witnesses and a Palestinian doctor said. Israeli military sources said militants set off an explosive and soldiers fired a tank shell, hitting one of the bombers.

Also Tuesday, Israeli tanks completed their pullout of the West Bank town of Hebron, the military said, after a two-day incursion launched in response to a deadly shooting attack on a nearby Jewish settlement. The military said 150 Palestinians were arrested, including 52 wanted men. Nine Palestinians were killed during the raid, including six civilians.

Before pulling out, soldiers arrested Loi Kafisha, a militia leader Israel charges with responsibility for several attacks. According to Israeli media, he was hiding in a local hospital and tried to escape disguised as a doctor.

In Bethlehem, the Palestinians left the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, through a low-slung opening known as the Door of Humility. The group was made up of civilians and Palestinian police, none wanted by Israel. One was carried on a stretcher.

The Israeli military later released 24 Palestinians at Beit Jalla hospital, next to Bethlehem, witnesses said. A senior Palestinian officer was released earlier, they said. An army statement said one Palestinian was taken to an Israeli hospital for treatment.

The Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan priest, had escorted the men, most in their teens and 20s, into Manger Square. With some soldiers on the square crouching and pointing their weapons at the Palestinians, the men held open their jackets to show they were not armed.

A Palestinian in the compound, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the men decided to leave because conditions were increasingly difficult, with food running low. All Palestinians emerging so far from the compound have denied that they had been held hostage by the militants.

Palestinians and clergy holed up in the church give different reasons for why they will not leave. The gunmen fled to the holy site to escape invading Israeli troops. The Palestinian policemen and civilians say they want to show solidarity for the Palestinian cause and don't want to be seen as surrendering to Israel. Some Palestinians say they fear being shot by Israelis soldiers if they leave the church.

"All of us are sons of one nation," said Mazen Abu Ali, a policeman still in the church, said by cell phone. "We can't leave each other to die just because some of us are accused of crimes."

The clergy say they don't want to leave the holy site, saying it is their duty to watch over the 4th-century church.

Estimates of the number of Palestinian gunmen, policemen, civilians and Christian clerics in the church have varied, ranging between 200 and 240.

The standoff began April 2 when Israeli troops invaded Bethlehem in search of Palestinian militants. About 75 people have now come out of the church, and the largest group to emerge before Tuesday was nine youths who left last week.

Israel says all inside are free to go except the 20 to 30 gunmen whom it wants to arrest or send into exile. The Palestinians have rejected the Israeli proposal, saying the gunmen should be allowed to go to the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

In Jerusalem, Israel's security Cabinet decided Tuesday not to cooperate with a U.N. inquiry into events at the Jenin refugee camp, scene of fierce fighting April 3-11. The Israelis want the United Nations to agree to six demands, including the right to control the list of official Israeli witnesses, deny access to secret documents and rebut non-government testimony.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan responded that he has already tried to address the Israeli concerns, leaving the fate of the mission in doubt. U.N. diplomats said Annan leaned "heavily" toward disbanding the team.

Israel and the Palestinians continued to trade charges over the Jenin battle. Palestinians charged that Israel massacred hundreds of civilians there. Israel hotly denies the charges of a massacre, saying that about 50 Palestinians died, most of them armed.

Meanwhile, the Physicians for Human Rights group charged Tuesday that Israel prevented medical aid from reaching victims of the fighting. It also called for a "politically neutral force to be quickly deployed at the Jenin camp to stop the haphazard removal of remains and personal property from the rubble."

Israel has denied charges that it deliberately held up medical teams, but said the fierce fighting often prevented them from entering the camp.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Israel's decision to block the U.N. inquiry was "a clear indicator that the Israeli government committed war crimes in the Jenin refugee camp." Abed Rabbo demanded that the U.N. Security Council impose sanctions on Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Tuesday he doubted the United Nations would agree to the Israeli conditions and expressed concern that it would now impose the inquiry on Israel.

Peres said he did not expect the United States to veto such a step, since Washington supports the inquiry in principle. "We must take into account that we will be completely alone," Peres said.

Israeli officials had said Monday they expected U.S. support in a showdown with the United Nations in exchange for Israel's agreement to release Arafat from confinement. However, Peres denied the United States ever held out such a promise.

Israel police arrested two Israelis on suspicion of planning attacks against Palestinians, Israeli media reported Tuesday. The two were the first to be arrested following several shooting attacks and one attempted bombing against Palestinians in recent months. Most details of the case were kept secret by a court order.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.