Thursday, 3 July 2003

Israel pulls out of Bethlehem

Palestinians hopeful, but must rebuild after uprising, occupation

Thursday, July 3, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Bethlehem, West Bank -- Uniformed Palestinian police officers returned to the streets of Bethlehem Wednesday, marching into the brilliant sunshine in Manger Square to the surreal accompaniment of chimes from the Church of the Nativity and the amplified call to prayer of the muezzin at the Omar Mosque.

The Palestinian Authority regained full security control of this West Bank city for the first time in more than a year after negotiating the full withdrawal of Israeli forces. Troops had occupied Bethlehem in an effort to stop suicide bombers reaching nearby Jerusalem and to halt frequent shooting attacks on the adjacent Jerusalem suburb of Gilo.

Bethlehem's economy has been crippled by the 33-month Palestinian uprising, during which control of its streets passed to armed gangs and terrorist groups, triggering an Israeli invasion. Many official buildings were destroyed by Israeli missiles, while the invaders' rumbling tanks smashed electricity, water and transport facilities.

Mayor Hanna Nasser said he was pleased to see the Israelis go but that as long as Bethlehem remains hemmed in by army roadblocks -- cutting off residents from jobs in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank -- it is "a ceremonial withdrawal, not a real one."

The move followed Monday's Israeli pullback in the Gaza Strip and an upbeat meeting Tuesday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Both leaders seemed determined on Wednesday to encourage a rising mood of cautious optimism. Israel released eight Palestinian prisoners in a symbolic move designed to show continued goodwill, and Sharon announced that the Israeli Cabinet would discuss more prisoner releases early next week. For his part, Abbas vowed to imprison anyone breaking the cease-fire and urged his people to embrace peace.

The United States announced it was giving $30 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority to rebuild damaged roads and public services. President Bush declared himself "really happy with what we've seen so far."

But he warned that extremists could still destroy the fragile steps toward peace.

"There are people there who still hate," Bush said. "They hate Israel. They hate the idea of peace. They can't stand the thought of a peaceful state existing side by side with Israel, and they . . . may be willing to . . . attack."

The threat emerged again Wednesday afternoon when thousands of Israeli drivers were brought to a halt around Tel Aviv as police, acting on an intelligence warning, sealed off all main roads to search for a suspected suicide bomber believed about to strike in central Israel.

In Jericho, Palestinian security forces jailed two would-be suicide bombers authorities said were captured on their way to carry out an attack. And in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians opened fire on the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom, injuring four people.

Bethlehem Police Commander Alla Hosni, overseeing the deployment of blue- uniformed officers armed with AK-47 assault rifles, expressed determination to make the handover stick.

"We have fulfilled all our commitments to Israel," he said. "Bethlehem is our territory, and we are now responsible for security.

"No one must shoot at the Israelis, especially now they have withdrawn as agreed with us. Anyone who violates this security arrangement is betraying the interests of the Palestinian people."

Hosni said his officers would stake out Bethlehem's perimeter to prevent anyone from trying to attack Israel and triggering another invasion of the city.

"We will not allow any armed group to operate," he vowed. "The only people allowed to carry weapons are the official Palestinian police and security personnel."

Municipality Director Jamal Salman said that the local economy is in ruins with the destruction of the Christian-centered tourist industry and that unemployment is running at 65 percent. He added that at least 2,000 of the city's 24,000 people have left since the intifada began, most of them Christians.

"The situation is very difficult for me," said Jumana Murad, a 22-year-old college graduate trained to work in tourism but who has never had the chance. "I sit at home with nothing to do.

"I am engaged and I don't see my fiance because he lives in Jerusalem and I cannot go there," she added. "He manages to reach Bethlehem just once a week because of the roadblocks. I hope God will help us."

Walid Zawarha, a CIA-trained former officer in the Palestinian secret service, said he hopes peace is coming but doubts it.

"The Israelis are still near Bethlehem and the checkpoint is still there," he said. "It's like being in a big prison. I haven't been to Jerusalem for four years although it's 10 minutes away. My wife is expecting a baby this week. The day I can take him to Jerusalem, I will know peace has finally arrived."

But Zawarha and other residents expressed mixed feelings about the renewal of Palestinian control. Zawarha said he quit his job in the security forces because they were corrupt and mistreated local Christians in the period prior to the intifada.

"The problem was that everyone had guns, machine-guns," he said. "Two or three guns in each house. Now the Israelis have taken everything, and it's clean. The Israelis left only about five wanted people in Bethlehem. It's clean, quiet."

Zawarha said he is confident that the revamped Palestinian security forces will not permit a reversion to the anarchic conditions before the intifada. But some of the city's dwindling Christian population said they fear they will once more become second-class citizens to the Muslim majority.

"We hope the Palestinian Authority will now put an end to the state of lawlessness that prevailed here," said Ramzi Sahhar, a local merchant. "We want security and order. We want one authority, not many people with guns.

"We want peace. We have suffered enough. Our economy has been destroyed, and we haven't worked for three years."

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