President Bush issued a stern message to both sides in the Middle East conflict today, calling upon Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and asking the Palestinians to do more to crack down on terrorists.
Less than two hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to let U.S. Middle East peace envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been trapped in his West Bank headquarters by the Israeli military since last Friday.
"The prime minister has decided to allow the American envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, to meet the chairman of the Palestinian Authority in accordance with the request of the general," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said, reading from a statement. It was not immediately clear when the meeting would take place.
In a televised address made from the White House Rose Garden today with Secretary of State Colin Powell by his side, Bush said the world "was grieving" over the violence that has gripped the Middle East.
"When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up, and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying, the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people," Bush said.
Next Steps for U.S.
Bush announced he was sending Powell to the region to help bring an end to the bloodshed.
"I hope that Secretary Powell can come immediately to the region because any delay of even a single hour could mean the lives, the difference between saving the life and losing the life of a Palestinian or an Israeli," Bush said.
Amid international criticism that Washington has maintained a diplomatic distance while the Middle East has been plunged into a bloodbath over the past week, Bush said the "world expected an immediate cease-fire."
"I expect better leadership, and I expect results," he said.
Emphasizing that he was speaking "as a committed friend of Israel, out of concern for its long-term security," Bush called on Israel to "show a respect for — and concern about — the dignity of the Palestinian people."
Responding to key Arab and Palestinian demands, he said Israel "must stop" building Jewish settlements in occupied lands and end its occupation in line with U.N. resolutions.
"I ask Israel to halt its incursion into Palestinian areas and begin a withdrawal of those cities it has recently occupied," he said.
However, a senior Israeli government adviser said Israel would not end its mission in the territories until the threat of terror was gone. "Before we go out we want to make sure terrorism doesn't come with us," the official told ABCNEWS.
Bush also called on Arafat to deliver "a clear and unequivocal message to terrorists: Blowing yourself up does not help the Palestinian cause."
In a harsh condemnation of the Palestinian leader, Bush said "the situation in which he [Arafat] finds himself today is largely of his own making."
Sharon has said Arafat would be allowed to leave Ramallah if he accepted a "one-way ticket" out of the Palestinian territories without his friends or family.
Arafat has refused and has vowed to die a martyr rather than leave.
Bush also called on the Arab world to make a commitment to peace, and on Syria to act against groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Immediately after the speech, an Israeli government spokesman said "we look forward to Powell's arrival and look forward to strengthening the relations between the United States and Israel."
Sharon's office also said in a statement, "Operation Defensive Shield will continue," but officials told Reuters it was not a reaction to Bush's announcement.
The Palestinians has a similarly double-edged response. "It is about time that President Bush realizes the gravity of the situation and how critical the conditions are," said Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi, but Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the criticism of Arafat was "unjustified and unacceptable."
In an interview with ABCNEWS' Dean Reynolds, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Palestinian Authority was waiting to see if Bush's call would have any effect.
"If I say something nice about Bush, and tomorrow the tanks are moving" the Palestinians "will think we are lunatics."
Meanwhile, House Democratic Leader Rep. Richard Gephardt advocated the United States' increased involvement in the region, and took aim at Arafat for his part in the unrest.
"Chairman Arafat has had many opportunities to demonstrate a true commitment to peace. He has not yet done so, and the consequences have been devastating for Israelis and Palestinians alike," he said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hailed Washington's more active stance, but put the burden on Israel. The Jewish state's military actions would not produce security for its people, but would yield only the hatred of 300 million Arabs, he said.
"The Israeli government is seriously mistaken if it thinks that its current policies will lead to the security it promised its electorate," Mubarak said. "This policy will lead to more harm and serious damage to the Israeli people."
And the U.N. Security Council unanimously endorsed the Mideast mission of Powell, demanding an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities "without delay."
Arafat today only praised Palestinians in the West Bank for their resistance, calling those fighting Israeli forces in Jenin and Nablus heroes "standing up to the savage Israeli aggression."
"Your people look at you with pride and confidence for their steadfastness and determination to challenge the Israeli destruction machine," Arafat said in a statement released by the government-run WAFA news agency.
As international concerns about the explosive Middle East situation have been mounting, a European Union delegation sent to Israel failed today and was returning home in less than 24 hours.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique had tried to meet with Arafat, but when Sharon denied them a meeting, they cut short their trip and canceled their meeting with Sharon. Pique said Sharon's decision was "a very deep error."
Church Standoff in Bethlehem
In the besieged city of Bethlehem, conflicting reports emerged over a possible Israeli attempt to seize the Church of Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest sites, where hundreds of Palestinians have taken refuge from Israeli forces.
Palestinian gunmen and Christian clergymen holed up inside said in telephone interviews today that Israeli troops had blown off the south door of the shrine, leaving only a corridor separating the Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops.
"The situation is very serious. The Jews have knocked down the door of the nativity church where all the Palestinians were," said Father Ibrahim Faltas, the custodian of the Church of the Nativity. "The Palestinians are now in the [adjacent] convent. There is a battle going on between the two sides and we are in the middle. We are in danger. Try to save us."
The report could not be confirmed, and there were separate reports of a gate to the Church of the Nativity being damaged, as well as word from Palestinian gunmen that shots had also been fired toward the gate of St. Catherine's Catholic Church, which is adjacent to the main church building.
Five Palestinians were killed today, including a Palestinian Christian who worked as the church's caretaker and bell ringer. Samir Ibrahim Salman was shot in the chest while walking to the church, medical personnel told The Associated Press. Four Israeli troops also died.
Bethlehem has been declared a "closed military zone" since Israeli tanks and troops moved into the biblical city on Tuesday night, so no reports from the city have been independently verified.
IDF Denies Damage Reports
Israeli military officials have denied the reports and a statement released by the Israel Defense Forces today said no Israeli soldier had entered or had made any move on the church.
Calling the reports "baseless lies," Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin today said Israeli forces had surrounded the church, but had not attacked it.
Hundreds of Palestinians, many of them armed, some of them uniformed Palestinian policemen, have been hiding in the fourth-century church for more than a day now.
The gunmen have vowed not to surrender without a direct order from Arafat.
Tanks Rumble Into Largest West Bank City
The Bethlehem standoff continued as Israeli tanks tightened their grip on Nablus, the largest West Bank city after entering overnight, leaving only two major West Bank towns under Palestinian control.
Witnesses in Nablus said hundreds of Israeli tanks had set up positions around the four refugee camps in the city and there were reports of gunfire exchanges. There
were also reports of casualties on both sides, but details were not available.
Israeli tanks and troops have also surrounded Hebron and Jericho — the only two major West Bank towns still in Palestinian hands — and there were fears that Israeli forces would move into the towns overnight.
The latest offensive, called "Operation Defensive Shield" was launched last Friday in what Israel has called a war to crack down on Palestinian militants after a spate of suicide bombings across the region last month.
Israeli military officials say troops have been meeting with Palestinian resistance in many West Bank towns and have been returning fire from Palestinian gunmen.
But in an interview with ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today, Robert Lipton, a U.S. citizen who was evacuated from Bethlehem's Star Hotel on Wednesday, said Palestinian resistance in the West Bank town had been relatively light.
"We would hear a pop or two [from the Palestinian side] and then this giant fusillade of weaponry from the Israeli side," he said. "Heavy machine gun fire, tanks...most of the time it was just [the] Israeli occupation force firing."
Israeli forces have taken over six major West Bank towns and cities — Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Jenin, Tulkarem, Bethlehem and Nablus — and Israeli officials say more than 1,100 Palestinians have been arrested since last Friday.
ABCNEWS' Charles Gibson, Gillian Findlay and Dean Reynolds in Jerusalem contributed to this report.