- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli troops began withdrawing from the West Bank town of Bethlehem yesterday under the first security agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians without U.S. help in nearly two years of fighting. But radicals threatened to torpedo the deal.

The agreement, which also calls for Israel's withdrawal from parts of the Gaza Strip, is seen as a test case that could lead Israel to hand back to the Palestinians other West Bank towns it has held for nearly two months.

While tension dropped in some places, violence continued in others. Israeli forces blew up a building they said was a bomb factory in the old city of Nablus, and soldiers fatally shot a 14-year-old boy in a village near Jenin.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and his Palestinian counterpart, Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, reached the first agreement by the two sides without U.S. mediation in nearly two years of fighting and the first since June 2001, when CIA Director George J. Tenet brokered a cease-fire that was never implemented.

The two sides agreed that Israel would pull back troops in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem, turning security duties over to Palestinian forces there.

Israeli troops stopped their patrols in Bethlehem yesterday evening, Israeli radio reported. Residents, however, said the Israeli-imposed curfew was still in effect in the town, just south of Jerusalem.

Mr. Yehiyeh said in an interview that redeployment in Gaza would be implemented in stages.

"From our side, we will take all the necessary procedures to achieve internal security and public security in those areas," Mr. Yehiyeh said.

In Gaza, Palestinian police checked the papers of drivers on a main northern road. Police officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, linked the checks to the new agreement, saying they would implement all aspects of it.

Shortly after violence erupted in September 2000, Israel imposed stiff restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, setting up roadblocks, cutting off cities and towns, and hurting the Palestinian economy.

Israel said the measures were necessary to keep attackers out of the country, but the Palestinians said Israel's goal was to oppress the population and bring down the Palestinian Authority administration headed by Yasser Arafat.

In June, Israeli forces took control of seven of the eight main Palestinian population centers, imposing curfews and maintaining a tight grip in response to suicide bombings. The pullout from Bethlehem would be the first relaxing of the Israeli incursion since mid-June.

Opposition to the deal came from the violent Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, which have been responsible for most of the suicide bombings inside Israel. Saying that the pact was aimed at ending the Palestinian uprising, they pledged to continue their attacks against Israel.

Also, the council representing Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza criticized the deal. "This is a step that is counter to Israel's security interests," a council statement said. "The Palestinians should be defeated and the war brought to an end."

Settlers frequently have been targets of Palestinian gunmen and bombers.

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