RAMALLAH, April 21: Israeli tanks rumbled out of two West Bank cities on Sunday after a crushing three-week occupation, but kept up sieges of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters and the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.

In a Vatican sermon, Pope John Paul called for an end to the standoff at the Nativity Church, saying it was marked by “blackmail and an intolerable exchange of accusations”.

Amid continued international outcry in some quarters over Israel’s policy, the army said it had left Ramallah and Nablus.

The pullout was delayed as soldiers removed ultra-Orthodox Jews who had slipped into Nablus to hold unauthorized prayers at an important shrine, military sources said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched a rolling reoccupation of West Bank towns and refugee camps on March 29.

Palestinian leaders say the offensive has caused hundreds of casualties, wiped out Arafat’s security services and wrecked many of the nascent institutions of his Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called Israeli pullbacks a “big deception”, saying Israel was still exercising security control of all Palestinian-ruled parts of the West Bank.

“By doing so, they have turned these areas into big prisons. We no longer can pursue our security duties,” he said.

The scale of devastation, especially in the Jenin refugee camp, has provoked blunt criticism from abroad and a fierce exchange of accusations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The European Union’s External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten accused Israel of “hijacking” the US-led “war on terror” and said in a BBC interview that its crushing use of force against Palestinians would prove counter-productive.

Israel promised on Saturday to cooperate with a UN Security Council mission to discover what happened in the Jenin camp, scene of the worst bloodbath in the offensive.

THOUSANDS MADE HOMELESS: The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees informed newsmen 800 dwellings had been destroyed and many more damaged in the camp, making 4,000 to 5,000 people homeless.

“Certainly there is evidence of overwhelming and apparently disproportionate use of force, even if a battle was going on in Jenin camp,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen said.

Mohammed Abu Ghali, director of Jenin hospital, said the body count from the camp had risen to 42. He stood by his earlier estimate that the final toll may be 300 to 400.

Eyewitnesses later saw two more bodies being extracted from the rubble.

In Ramallah, shaken residents emerged from their houses after 23 days of rarely interrupted curfew to inspect damage.

Townspeople removed barbed wire from abandoned Israeli tank positions. Garbage littered streets torn up by Israeli armour.—Reuters