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Middle East: Israeli troops conduct house-to-house searches in Nablus; identity of occupants in Bethlehem Church of the Nativity is unknown.

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MARK COLVIN: Israel’s war which Ariel Sharon says is against terror but Yasser Arafat believes is against Palestine, is into its seventh day and there’s been no let-up. More than 100 Israeli tanks have moved into the town of Nablus, meaning an effective occupation right across the West Bank. Egypt has already decided to scale down its diplomatic relations with Israel and there is more diplomatic tension after Israel refused a European Union delegation permission to visit the besieged Yasser Arafat. I asked our correspondent, Jill Colgan, first about the situation in Nablus.


JILL COLGAN: At the moment, we are told that there is quite a convoy of tanks inside. There’s more than 100 tanks and hundreds of military vehicles, including armoured personnel carriers—that sort of thing. Troops are spanning out across the town conducting house to house searches. The Israeli military has said that it will try to withhold the use of tank fire in a bid to reduce the number of casualties, and that it will pursue the house to house searches that it is now implementing in a bid to find the militants on its ‘most wanted’ list. That’s what we are told is happening, but independent reports are coming out of Nablus to say that there are civilian casualties; so once again, the fighting has erupted in casualties on both sides of people who are not actually linked to the terrorist bombings in Israel.


MARK COLVIN: Are any television pictures coming out Nablus or has the Israeli crackdown on the media been successful there?


JILL COLGAN: So far we’ve not seen any pictures out of Nablus as yet. It may be that those organisations who perhaps have got a foothold in there have not been able to send out pictures, but it is quite likely that in fact the Israelis have been quite efficient in getting the media out of their way and pushing them back beyond the check-points that they’ve set up around the town. Certainly, Israel has been extremely persuasive in getting people out of the town so that they are unable to report perhaps any mistakes and certainly any of the ongoing clashes between the Israelis and the Palestinians.


MARK COLVIN: What about the stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? Is there any movement there?


JILL COLGAN: We are told that there is quite a number of wounded within those grounds. The Israelis say that they will allow some of the wounded to come out, but there is, once again, conflicting information about just who it is that’s holed up inside that building. The Palestinians are saying that it is innocent civilians; the Israelis are saying that there are a number of wanted Palestinian militants inside. So we haven’t yet heard of a breakthrough in that. We are told that there may be some assistance to the wounded but we haven’t yet heard when there will be a cease-fire to allow the wounded to be brought out, so that siege is ongoing.


MARK COLVIN: Clearly, that’s not going to do the Israelis a lot of good, for instance, with the Catholic Church, but what about the wider diplomatic scene? What has happened with this European Union delegation that wanted to visit Arafat in his compound?


JILL COLGAN: As you say, there’s been an extraordinary reaction from the international community. Virtually all of it, of course, is unified in its condemnation of this Israeli military campaign. The EU has decided that it will attempt, later today, to put together a delegation to try and reach Yasser Arafat within his compound where he has now been under siege for seven days. The Israelis say they cannot guarantee the safety of that delegation. They are not saying where the threat is—whether the threat is from their own forces, whether the threat is from the Palestinians or whether it’s a threat of being caught in the cross-fire; but they are saying they will not allow the delegation to reach Mr Arafat and they will stop them at a check-point if they do try and get in. Now, this could be interpreted as the continued isolation of Mr Arafat. They’ve really cut off any attempts by him to reach the outside world in the last few days. They’ve certainly not allowed him access to any of the media, so they are trying to stop his voice reaching the outside.


MARK COLVIN: Is there anything in terms of the European Union or the United Nations or any other diplomatic initiative that looks like having any effect on what is going on now?


JILL COLGAN: It is in a state of flux, at the moment. We are waiting to see just what action, for example, the United States is going to take. The view from here, at the moment, is that there was a security cabinet meeting amongst the Israelis last night. The view that leaked out was that in fact they do know their time is limited to persist with this particularly ferocious campaign but they believe they have a window of opportunity at the moment to continue in the way that they are going, so they are certainly acting in a way that is fast and furious. They do believe their time is limited. Perhaps the United States will be pushed to act within the next few days but no-one yet knows when that deadline will come.


MARK COLVIN: Jill Colgan in Jerusalem.