Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Reversing an earlier decision to completely isolate Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday allowed Washington's special Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni to meet with Arafat at his Ramallah headquarters.
Zinni's talks with Arafat came after Gen. Zinni met with Sharon, all of this happening as the standoff between Palestinian gunmen and the Israeli army continued at a Bethlehem church.
Zinni's talks with the two leaders come less than a day after President Bush delivered his harshest criticism of Arafat and also called on Israel to pulls its tanks and troops out of PA-controlled areas.
Sharon issued a statement saying that Israel would not end the military action until it had accomplished its goal of destroying the terrorist infrastructure.
Neither the U.S. Consulate in eastern Jerusalem, responsible for affairs in the PA-controlled areas, nor the Israeli government would comment on what they hoped would come out of the Zinni-Arafat meeting, which was still in progress at this writing.
According to Israeli media reports, Israel sent a message to Arafat through Zinni: Turn over the five terrorists responsible for the assassination of Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evy and Fuad Shoubaki.
Shoubaki has been implicated as a major player in the Karine-A affair, in which the PA allegedly tried to smuggle more than 50 tons of weapons from Iran into PA areas.
According to Israeli military intelligence, which recently produced documents seized from Arafat's compound in Ramallah, Shoubaki's office also received requests from the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade to grant financial assistance to wanted terrorists.
Shoubaki and the others are holed up with Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters.
Several journalists who attempted to cover Zinni's visit said Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at them. Israel declared Ramallah a closed military zone several days ago.
The army had no comment on the incident.
Church of the Nativity
Meanwhile, the standoff continued for a fourth day at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where some 200 armed Tanzim gunmen are holed up along with Christian hostages as the Israeli army faces them down.
The Tanzim, part of Arafat's Fatah faction, have been accused primarily by outside groups of terrorizing local Christian residents.
The army spokesman said the army has been negotiating for the release of some 60 Christian clergymen, who are being held hostage by the militants in the church, which many Christians revere as the site of the birthplace of Jesus.
An army spokesman also said that Israel had offered to bring in food and medical supplies, but the offer was refused.
Monsignor Pietro Sambi, the head of the Apostolic Delegation, which acts as the Vatican's embassy here, said that everyone is working to find a solution.
"There is a shortage of food. But this is not the problem," Sambi said in a brief telephone interview. "'Til now there is not a solution concerning the armed people inside."
According to Sambi, Israel, the Apostolic Delegation and the Palestinians all have contact with the gunmen.
Palestinian sources were quoted as saying that the bodies of seven suspected collaborators were found shot to death near the church. They apparently were shot on Monday.