Bethlehem, West Bank Israelis and Palestinians agreed Sunday on the broad outlines of a deal to end the monthlong siege of the Church of the Nativity by exiling a number of Palestinians accused of terrorism.
Negotiators appeared on the verge of signing the accord early today as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived in the United States for talks with President Bush.
The breakthrough came only a few days after the United States stepped up pressure to end the standoff between armed Palestinians and Israeli forces at one of Christianity's holiest sites.
Six to 15 Palestinians inside the church who are on Israel's most-wanted list would be sent to Italy as "temporary visitors," according to one Palestinian official. Another 35 to 40 men would be sent to the Gaza Strip. The rest of the 123 men inside would go free.
Israeli and Palestinians said the exact numbers of men involved were the last obstacle to signing the deal, which they hoped to finalize today. But both sides said the basic structure of the deal had already been agreed to. The actual transfer of the men is to begin soon after the accord is signed.
"Progress has been made, but there's no deal yet. They're still talking," a top Israeli security official said.
Palestinians in the church said early today they had been told by their leaders that their 35-day ordeal would end within hours.
"We hope most of us will walk home. I hope this will be resolved (this) morning," said Mohammed Madani, the Bethlehem region's Palestinian governor, who has been in the church almost from the beginning of the crisis.
Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers were rumbling through this ancient city's winding streets in the cool predawn hours, apparently in preparation for the evacuation and transfer of men. Soldiers began erecting a barricade between a swarm of reporters and the entrance to the 4th century basilica.
The standoff at the church is the last unresolved crisis remaining from Israel's massive assault on the West Bank. In the last month, Israeli troops invaded nearly every Palestinian city in their search for "terrorist cells," waging fierce door-to-door combat in many places.
The siege's end would clear the way for a new stage in Palestinian-Israeli relations, which have been severely damaged by the assault. Focus would then shift to a proposed peace conference this summer.
Troops entered Bethlehem in force April 2, prompting Palestinian gunmen, militants and civilians to seek refuge in the church, which Christians believe marks the birthplace of Jesus.
As the weeks dragged on, negotiations seemed to go nowhere. Small groups of men and boys exited the church, weak from hunger. On Thursday, 10 activists ran into the church with food, accompanied by Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole.
By Sunday, there were 123 Palestinians left inside, along with an estimated 30 clerics from the Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox orders. Cole could not be contacted today, but she and the activists remained in the church.
Details about the fate of the men wanted by Israel remained sketchy early today.
The United States and the European Union stepped up their involvement Sunday, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon headed to Washington for meetings with President Bush and top administration figures.
Resolving the standoff was a major goal for Arafat. Only a short while after being released from his own monthlong siege, Arafat angrily proclaimed that resolving the situation at the church was one of his top priorities.
Israeli media reported that the first indication of a breakthrough came late Sunday, when Arafat called Madani, the governor, in the church to tell him to begin preparing for an orderly and peaceful evacuation.