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Palestinian Students Face IDF in a Tense Standoff in Nablus

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After a long period of relative calm on the West Bank, the army and hundreds of Palestinian students confronted each other in a tense standoff at A-Najah University in the heart of Nablus.

It was the first test of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the territories, and some analysts believed it was a deliberate attempt by Palestinian radicals to see how far the new government would go in dealing with the intifada.

A ring of soldiers encircled the university throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday, demanding the right to search students leaving the university.

Most of the students spent the night at the campus, rejecting the army’s demand. When the army first cordoned off the campus, students began flocking to the university, bringing the total number of people on campus to about 2,000.

The United States has urged restraint on both sides. “We’ve been urging people to resolve this peacefully, and we’re urging them to exercise maximum restraint,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.

Secretary of State James Baker is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Sunday for talks with Rabin.

The trouble began Tuesday afternoon, during student elections on campus, as the Israel Defense Force received information that armed Palestinians, wanted by security forces, were inside the campus.

The army said one wanted Palestinian, carrying a home-made pistol, was captured by soldiers just outside the campus.

After blocking off the streets leading to the campus, the army announced that students were free to leave, but that soldiers would have the right to search suspects.

The army stressed that the wanted men they believed were on campus were involved in terror attacks. However, the students refused to leave under these conditions, and the standoff began. They demanded the right to leave with no searches and no army interference.

A number of Palestinian leaders, including Faisal Husseini and Saeb Erekat, both members of the unofficial Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, travelled from Jerusalem to Nablus, in an attempt to mediate.

Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild, coordinator of civil affairs in the administered territories, stressed that the students were not being locked inside the university. “Anybody who wishes to leave may do so. But he or she must submit to a search for arms and identify himself,” he said.

(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)

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