- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

BETHLEHEM Israel suspended a planned withdrawal from two West Bank towns yesterday after it said Palestinian gunmen fired on its soldiers. Palestinians said the pullout was supposed to have been unconditional and that the delay shows Israel is not serious about peace.
Israel had been scheduled to withdraw from Bethlehem and Beit Jalla late yesterday. The pullout was to be a test case for withdrawals from four other West Bank towns Israel occupied starting Oct. 18 in search of Palestinians who killed Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
It wasn't clear how long the suspension would last, but Israeli officials said the pullout wouldn't occur before today, or while they were under fire.
"The pullback from Bethlehem and Beit Jalla by [Israeli defense] forces is suspended for the time being because of noncompliance [with] the agreements reached by the Palestinian police forces, and the continuation of the firing from these areas," said Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Gissin said the pullout would occur when the Palestinian Authority implements a cease-fire he said it agreed to Friday in a three-way meeting with U.S. officials.
A Foreign Ministry official, Gideon Meir, said Israel would pull out today "if there will be a stop of shooting and the Palestinians will stand up to their commitments."
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the withdrawal was supposed to have been unconditional.
"I think it's a political decision not to pull out," he said.
Clashes occurred yesterday at an intersection between Bethlehem and Beit Jalla, as well as near the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.
The army also reported gunfire from Palestinian areas into Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood built on disputed land on Jerusalem's outskirts. One person was slightly injured there.
In Tulkarem, another West Bank town Israel occupied last week, a member of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement was shot and killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli tanks, Palestinian doctors and officials said.
Palestinian gunmen had fired after the tanks moved deeper into the town's center, they said. The army said its tanks fired after being fired on.
Israeli officials stressed that Palestinians must enforce a truce declared on Sept. 26 and ensure security for the pullout to be completed. Israel also has occupied Jenin, Qalqilya, Ramallah and Tulkarem.
Mr. Arafat said yesterday the suspension showed Israel is not serious about making peace with the Palestinians.
"It was supposed to take place tonight, but as you see it has not been implemented," Mr. Arafat said after meeting at his Gaza headquarters with European parliamentarians. "It's a part of their policy not to achieve real peace."
Government spokesman Avi Pazner said that Israel would have to reconsider deployments in other West Bank cities if the Palestinians failed to keep the peace in Bethlehem and Beit Jalla.
"But let me say that we hope that they will succeed, because Israel has no interest in staying in those cities," he said.
Hours before the withdrawal was to begin, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire near an intersection between Bethlehem and Beit Jalla after Israeli snipers took over an office building occupied by Palestinians workers, both sides said.
"When I tried to escape, they kicked me in the stomach, and told to keep silent and sit on the ground," said Farid Tarsh, 26, a Bethlehem lawyer who was detained as he headed to his office in the building.
The army said it had taken up positions in the building and had released the civilians once the shooting started. An army spokesman said soldiers eventually left for strategic reasons.
The Israeli incursions were the most extensive Israeli military action in 13 months of fighting. They left 38 Palestinians dead, failed to net all of Mr. Zeevi's killers and angered the Bush administration, which worried that further unrest would undermine support among Arab nations for its anti-terrorism campaign.
"We regret what's happening and we think both sides should try harder to get their act together," said Paul Patin, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy.
Israel had originally said it wouldn't pull out of the towns until Mr. Arafat arrested and handed over Mr. Zeevi's killers. Two have been arrested, but the militants suspected of having fired the shots remain at large.
After international pressure focused on Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, Israel agreed to withdraw Friday without the suspects in its custody.

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