JERUSALEM - Israel expanded its lethal war on terror last night, sending tanks roaring into Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, as troops laid siege to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity for a second day.
With the advance of perhaps 300 Israeli tanks and other vehicles into Nablus, only two large West Bank towns - Hebron and Jericho - remained under Palestinian control.
The tense standoff at the sixth-century Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, began after Palestinian gunmen barricaded themselves inside and pursuing Israeli soldiers surrounded them.
An army spokesman said that there were no immediate plans to storm the church, which Christians believe was built on the birthplace of Jesus.
Israeli forces invaded the West Bank on Friday after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 26 Israelis at a Seder on the first day of Passover, and more incursions are likely amid Israel's largest military operation since the invasion of Lebanon two decades ago.
Though negotiations were reportedly under way with local and Vatican officials to end the church siege peacefully, the standoff has created a dilemma for the Israeli army. The military desperately wants to capture the gunmen while maintaining its vow to "not shoot at sacred places" and avoiding an assault on a shrine full of priests and nuns.
"We do not want to actively invade in a military way," said Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the army's chief spokesman. "But we definitely want to search the church, with the kind assistance of the people who are in charge there."
Reached by telephone inside the church, a Greek Orthodox priest who is tending to the gunmen said he is duty bound to help those who seek sanctuary.
"It is the duty of the church to protect and prevent people from being massacred," Father Parthenius said. "We cannot ask them to leave because they are going to be killed, and it is a mortal sin to send people out to get killed."
Up to 200 people are inside, including dozens of fighters, priests, monks, nuns and Italian journalists.
Kitrey questioned why the priests appear to be helping the militants. "There are many innocent people inside the church," he said. "They are not coming out, and we don't know why."
Parthenius said occupants are running out of food. He described the fighters as initially "very agitated and nervous, but they have calmed down. They respect us fully and listen to us carefully and obey whatever we say."
Neither side has shot at the other during the siege. But witnesses said the militants shot their way into the church Tuesday to escape a protracted battle with Israeli troops and pushed away priests who tried to keep them out.
Palestinian officials said only a handful of gunmen were among the people who took sanctuary inside the church to escape the gunfire that has ravaged the city, six miles south of Jerusalem.
Father Raed Abu Sahlia, a spokesman for Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, the Vatican's representative in the Holy Land, lashed out angrily at Israel's armed forces. He described the gunmen as refugees.
"They asked for refuge inside the Church of the Nativity," said Abu Sahlia, who is in contact with the Vatican and Israelis officials to resolve the standoff. "They have fled the military zones because they know that the church is a holy place and that it is safe."
Italian television journalist Marc Innaro, who has been trapped inside the church complex since Tuesday, said in a phone interview that nearly all of the Palestinians inside are gunmen who shot the locks off an iron gate to get in.
Innaro, who works for the RAI television network, had taken refuge in the monastery on the church grounds during the intense fighting. About three hours later, he said, a fierce gunfight erupted in Manger Square between soldiers and up to 200 Palestinians.
He said the gunmen forced their way into the monastery, questioned him and his crew, and then took refuge inside the adjacent Church of the Nativity. Exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, they spent the night clutching their weapons and sprawled on the ancient stone floor and in the pews over the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born. About 30 priests and nuns fed them and treated the two dozen wounded.
"I want to stress that we are not hostages," Innaro said.
Israel's incursion into Bethlehem and has put the Christian Church in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abu Sahlia said representatives are trying to help negotiate a permanent cease-fire, and he urged that "this madness stop from both sides."
"Political leaders for Israel and the Palestinians are blind and deaf," he said. "They don't see the reality that war will bring nothing more than blood, destruction, hate and revenge. It's time for moral people to show them a peaceful way."
In Washington, President Bush repeated his support for the Israeli assault. "He understands and respects Israel's right to defend herself," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he was considering a meeting with Israeli and Arab leaders during a trip to Europe next week.
Efforts to end the battles and return to negotiations appear to be at a standstill, though U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni has said he is working hard to restore talks.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains a virtual prisoner in his battered complex in Ramallah, cut off and isolated by Israeli troops that knocked down his perimeter wall and fought their way into the compound on Friday, leaving Arafat untouched but confined to two rooms. He has rejected an Israeli offer to go into permanent exile.
Outside Ramallah, 180 Palestinians holed up inside a security building surrendered after Israeli forces had pounded the building all day Tuesday. Those inside gave up after the United States helped arrange a cease-fire.
Yesterday, Israeli soldiers swept through the hilltop compound and announced that six of the people who had given up were members of the militant group Hamas, responsible for deadly attacks in Israel.
Troops completed their advance on the West Bank city of Jenin and the village of Salfit, the latest Palestinian-controlled jurisdictions to come under Israeli occupation in the six-day effort to destroy the terrorist infrastructure.
Three gunmen, a nurse and a 13-year-old boy were killed in Jenin. An exact casualty toll has been difficult to calculate because Israel has barred reporters and ambulances from most trouble spots.
The fiercest fighting has occurred in Bethlehem. Soldiers conducted house-to-house searches and walked along the narrow stone streets lined with shuttered shops, firing their assault weapons as they turned the corners.
Gunbattles have raged for two days, with many people reported killed and injured. Palestinian human rights groups have complained that many of the wounded have died because ambulances have been shot at, crushed by tanks or barred from city streets.
The bodies of four men remained sprawled on streets in Manger Square yesterday, and a dead woman and her son remained in her house where they had been struck by bullets. It was too dangerous for anyone to venture out.
After nightfall, a single ambulance was allowed to retrieve the dead and wounded. Palestinian medics said they picked up three bodies in the first sweep and then piled two wounded men on top of the corpses to fit them all inside. They said they expected to find many more bodies.
As with Ramallah, the Israeli army declared Bethlehem a "closed military zone" and barred journalists from entering the city. A group of reporters who checked into a hotel before the invasion found the doors locked by soldiers, and they were unable to get outside to cover the battles.
Israel and the Palestinians have given wildly different versions of events. The Palestinians accused soldiers of shooting at and invading Santa Maria Church. But army officials said about 80 Palestinian gunmen stormed the church and took priests hostage. They said soldiers fired on the building only after they had been shot at.
Yesterday, a priest and seven nuns emerged from the church and told soldiers the gunmen had fled. Kitrey, the army spokesman, said the priest escorted soldiers inside, who found the building empty except for the body of a Palestinian civilian, bound, gagged and shot in the head and left in a pew.