Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel was keeping Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat "isolated" from diplomatic contacts on Thursday as the army continued to broaden its ground operations. Israel faced increasing international pressure to leave the PA areas it recently entered for the sake of its own security.
As many as 250 armed Palestinian gunmen remained hunkered down in the Church of the Nativity on Thursday for a third day as Israeli officers attempted to persuade the militants to leave the place where most Christians believe that Jesus was born.
A similar standoff at Santa Maria Church ended when the gunmen apparently escaped out of a back door, freeing a priest and several nuns who had been inside, an Israeli army statement said.
Israeli military officials said soldiers have strict orders not to fire on holy places, even if they are being used to shelter terrorists. But conflicting press reports early Thursday morning said gunfire had erupted around the Church of the Nativity. Israel denies firing on the church, but Palestinians inside accuse the Israelis of blowing off a church door.
Brig.-General Ron Kitrey noted that Israel has not heard "any kind of global condemnation of the use of sacred places like this by people, armed or unarmed."
Overnight, Israeli troops and tanks entered Nablus -- one of the largest PA-controlled cities in the West Bank -- sending tanks into the area from three directions. Palestinian sources there were quoted as saying that some 100 tanks were involved in the operation.
In a front-page commentary in the popular Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Alex Fischman wrote the "real war" began on Wednesday evening, in reference to the incursion into Nablus.
"What we have seen until now was only a prelude," Fischman wrote. "Nablus is the center of Palestinian terrorism. The battle will be difficult in the built up area with the tall buildings and in the crowded Kasbah [market]. This is the real military test."
The Israeli army declared Beit Jala, Bethlehem, Jenin, Kalkilya, Nablus, Salfit and Tulkarem as closed military zones. Israel entered the PA-controlled areas last Friday following a suicide bomb attack on the eve of the Passover holiday, in which 26 people were killed.
Israel continues to resist mounting international pressure to withdraw from the PA areas and has insisted on keeping Arafat "isolated."
The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Saturday calling for a ceasefire from both sides as well as an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the territories. The Council was meeting again on Thursday to discuss the current situation.
The U.S. has also come under increasing pressure to push Israel into withdrawing and to become more involved in the conflict.
Media reports on Thursday said that Israel had prevented Washington's envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni from meeting with Arafat.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment on the reports but sources close to the situation said that Zinni is scheduled to meet with Sharon on Thursday and that the situation may change after that.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that since Zinni is supposed to mediate a ceasefire, he should be permitted to meet with Arafat.
But the Israeli government sources said that for the time being the cabinet had decided to "isolate" Arafat and isolated he would stay.
Peres was scheduled to meet with European Union envoy Javier Solana and Jose Pique, the foreign minister of Spain, which currently holds the rotating head of the EU on Thursday.
PA sees 'long-term struggle'
The PA meanwhile called on Palestinians to unite for a "long-term struggle" and accused the U.S. of providing cover for Israeli "massacres."
According to a statement carried by the official Palestinian News Agency WAFA, the Palestinian leadership was urging Palestinians "to close ranks in a long-term struggle against this occupation and to mobilize all its resources...to confront this unjust and criminal war."
It also called on the U.S. administration "to stop providing cover for this criminal aggression and the massacres committed by the occupation army and to force Israel -- and it is able to do that -- to stop this crime that will leave big scars on the peace process and the peace, security and stability of the region."
Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated on Wednesday that he might be willing to meet with Israeli and Arab leaders during a trip to Europe next week in which he is scheduled to meet with European and the Russian foreign ministers.
"We are examining all possibilities. I would not rule out meeting with anybody where it would serve a useful purpose," Powell told reporters at the State Department.
The White House renewed its support of Israel's right to self-defense and offered no hint of criticism of the expanded battle with Palestinian gunmen on the West Bank.
"In the wake of the suicide bombings and the attacks that took place in Israel, [the president] understands and respects Israel's right to defend herself," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.