- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Sirens blaring, Palestinian police moved yesterday into the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the second area handed over by Israel under a U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan.

The turnover of the ancient town considered the birthplace of Jesus comes after an upbeat summit between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers boosted hope for an end to 33 months of bloodshed.

Residents clapped and cheered as a column of about 60 police in dark blue uniforms marched from their barracks toward the center of town, followed by a motorbike and two cars.

The police had to walk because there were not enough vehicles to transport all of them, they said.



“Welcome, welcome,” a grandmother, Hilal Murra, told them. “It’s better to see them in the streets than the Israelis.”

As a Palestinian flag was raised over the police station in Manger Square, 16-year-old George Abu Eata smiled.

“It makes me feel proud,” he said.

Paving the way for the turnover, Israeli troops withdrew from part of northern Gaza Strip on Sunday, in line with the “road map” to peace announced by President Bush at a June 4 summit on the Middle East in Jordan.

The yielding of control came a day after Israeli and Palestinian leaders promised painful concessions, furthering hope of ending the bloodshed. The three main Palestinian militant groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction — have declared a temporary halt in attacks on Israelis.

On Tuesday, Israeli army trucks started carrying away armored vehicles and containers full of equipment from two Israeli bases, withdrawing to the outskirts of Bethlehem. They officially turned over security to Palestinians shortly after midday, a military statement said.

There were, however, many reminders of the violence. Police closed off main highways in the center of Israel yesterday evening, causing huge, rush-hour traffic jams as they checked vehicles and drivers. Israel Radio reported that police had intelligence that a Palestinian suicide bomber was in the area.

Speaking in front of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office before their Tuesday summit, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas said the turnover of Bethlehem and Gaza would be “followed by pullbacks from the rest of the cities and towns and Palestinian refugee camps.” It was their third summit in six weeks.

Residents, nonetheless, did not expect the turnover to change much as long as Bethlehem remained hedged in by Israeli checkpoints.

“They are making fools out of us,” said Jaudat Joude, who has been unable to go to his job at a Jerusalem welding factory since the uprising began nearly three years ago.

“If you want to make some serious changes, open the roads, remove the checkpoints and let people in to work. Then, maybe, we can believe that the Israelis have good intentions.”

At the Tuesday summit, Mr. Abbas asked for freedom of movement for Mr. Arafat, who has been confined to his West Bank headquarters by Israel for more than a year. Mr. Sharon said he would consider allowing Mr. Arafat to move to Gaza, but a senior Israeli official said it would be a “one-way ticket.”

Israeli forces have occupied Bethlehem several times, once putting the Church of the Nativity under siege for a month and demanding surrender of Palestinian gunmen. They had taken refuge inside the shrine traditionally believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth.

After a Nov. 21 suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus carried out by a Palestinian from Bethlehem, soldiers went back in and stayed.

On Tuesday, senior commanders met and worked out the details of the turnover. The military said Israel would be in charge of security of Israelis, including settlers in nearby villages, and Palestinian security forces committed to preventing “terrorist attacks in the areas under their responsibility.”

A similar formula held in Gaza, where Israeli troops pulled out late Sunday.

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