- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

JERUSALEM — The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers made their first public show of reconciliation yesterday, confirming their commitment to peace as Israeli armored vehicles and trucks loaded with military gear began withdrawing from Bethlehem.

At a ceremony outside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office, former enemies — including the Israeli defense minister and the Palestinian security chief — sat side by side and chatted in a display of accord after 33 months of bloodshed.

“We are facing a new opportunity today, a better future for both peoples,” Mr. Sharon said, addressing his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, before the two met behind closed doors.

“The possibility of a better future [is] before us. I will make every effort to achieve an agreement that will lead us to peace and security.”

Mr. Abbas responded in kind, saying that every day without a peace agreement is “an opportunity lost, every life sacrificed is a human tragedy.”

He said it was time for Israel and the Palestinians to “put the past behind us” and cooperate to end the violence, in which 2,414 persons have been killed on the Palestinian side and 806 on the Israeli side during the past 33 months.

It was the third such meeting in Jerusalem, but the first time that the two leaders, joined by senior Cabinet ministers and aides, made a public display of improving relations.

The two leaders also met in Jordan on June 4 with President Bush for the beginning of the “road map” plan, which envisions a peace agreement and Palestinian statehood by 2005.

The pullout from the West Bank town of Bethlehem is to begin today, in line with the road map requirement for Israel to withdraw to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000. Over the weekend, Israel pulled back from parts of the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian militias declared a suspension of attacks on Israelis.

Yesterday, trucks loaded with boxes and containers drove out of an army base on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Flatbed trucks transporting armored vehicles pulled out of another base.

In Washington, the Bush administration said it was pleased with the performance of Mr. Abbas and is considering resuming direct aid to the Palestinian Authority — with a big boost to help strengthen its security forces.

“We’ve made no decision about what level of potential increase in funds there would be,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday. “But the very fact we are involved in these discussions directly with the Palestinian Authority is a hopeful sign.”

For years, the United States has bypassed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and assisted Palestinian people through the United Nations and private groups.

This year, the Palestinians are scheduled to receive $200 million in U.S. funds on top of more than $1 billion provided by the European Union and the Arab League.

Despite the militias’ truce, a Palestinian man opened fire at a West Bank checkpoint yesterday and was killed by troops. There was no claim of responsibility, but renegade groups in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, linked to the ruling Fatah movement, have said they will not observe the truce. On Monday, Al Aqsa gunmen killed a Bulgarian construction worker in the West Bank.

In other developments yesterday, Israeli wrecking crews demolished the foundations of a mosque being built without authorization next to a major Christian shrine, the Basilica of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood town.

In Jerusalem, police said they have allowed non-Muslims to resume tours of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third-holiest shrine, that had been closed to visitors since the outbreak of fighting.

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