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Monday, 6 May, 2002, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Bethlehem deal in sight
Israeli army vehicle patrols Bethlehem streets
Israeli troops patrol the streets as negotiations continue
Plans are being finalised to end the five-week stand-off at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where more than 100 Palestinians are surrounded by Israeli soldiers.

Few details of the proposed deal have emerged, but it appears that about 40 Palestinians who are wanted by Israel will be sent either into exile in Italy or into custody in the Gaza Strip.

Bethlehem residents try to clear up after more than a month of fighting and curfews
The curfew was lifted for several hours as negotiators took a rest after late-night talks
An end to the siege would pave the way for Israeli troops to pull out of Bethlehem, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepares to meet US President George W Bush in Washington.

President Bush has demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian-ruled areas.

The BBC's Peter Biles in Bethlehem says the sticking point at the moment appears to be the number of Palestinians who will go to Italy.

The others in the church - who include clerics and civilians - are expected to be allowed to go free.

  Click here for Bethlehem siege timeline

Elsewhere in Bethlehem, the Israelis say they have arrested 13 Palestinian activists.

In renewed confrontations in the Gaza Strip, four Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces.

Ramallah revisited?

Since 2 April, the Israelis have been trying to force the militants in the church to surrender for trial by Israel or exile for their alleged role in attacks on Israeli civilians.

As news of a possible deal emerged late on Sunday, Palestinian police were told to prepare to go to Manger Square to collect weapons from those who eventually emerge from the church.

Israel says three Palestinian leaders have been assigned to help the army with the weapons confiscation and to organise the evacuation of the church.

Cardinal Etchegaray with Israeli Foreign Minister  Shimon Peres
The Pope's special envoy was sent to help reach a settlement last week
Under the deal, most of the wanted men would be sent to Gaza for trial in Palestinian courts, one report said.

Another report said that, according to the deal outlined by the Palestinians, the men would be imprisoned in Gaza and guarded by US and British jailers - similar to the agreement brokered to end Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's confinement in Ramallah last week.

The outline accord, negotiated with the help of foreign mediators would, if implemented, resolve the last major confrontation in the Israeli military offensive against Palestinian militants.

Among those involved in efforts to end the stand-off is the Pope's special envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who arrived in the Middle East last week.

The Israeli military's curfew in Bethlehem was lifted for several hours early on Monday, but there was no sign of activity at the Church of the Nativity.

Sharon peace plan

Mr Sharon, who is due to begin talks with senior US officials on Monday, has taken with him details of what he calls "a serious plan, maybe the most serious" to end the conflict with the Palestinians.

Ariel Sharon
Sharon is seeking to sideline Arafat
Aides said Mr Sharon would argue that a long-term interim deal with the Palestinians should be worked out at the regional peace conference already proposed by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Israeli leader is seeking the president's support to sideline Mr Arafat - a move that the Bush administration has so far resisted.

When he sees Mr Bush on Tuesday, he is expected to give him a collection of documents which officials say proves links between Mr Arafat and terrorist organisations.

The documents have been dismissed as "lies and fabrications" by leading Palestinians.

It will be Mr Sharon's fifth visit to the White House since he was elected last February. Mr Arafat has yet to receive an invitation.

Cycle of confrontation

In renewed bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, four Palestinians were killed in two separate incidents.

An Israeli army statement said the "terrorists" were trying to infiltrate Israel.

Palestinian sources said two of the dead were members of Islamic Jihad, while the other two belonged to Hamas.

The BBC's Claire Marshall
"To the people of Bethlehem the withdrawal can't come soon enough"
See also:

06 May 02 | Middle East
Sharon courts US leaders
05 May 02 | Middle East
US criticises Arafat's leadership
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Church with a turbulent history
03 May 02 | Middle East
Q&A: Middle East peace conference
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