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Palestinian Gunmen Briefly Seize Bethlehem Municipality

Palestinian gunmen briefly seized the municipality in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, just four days before Christmas. It's the latest indication of the Palestinian Authority's inability to impose law and order.

About 20 Palestinian militants armed with assault rifles stormed into Bethlehem city hall, across from the Church of the Nativity, traditionally considered to be built over the birthplace of Jesus. The gunmen were from the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked to the ruling Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. They demanded to be put on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority.

"We want jobs," said one of the gunmen. "We want salaries for 320 Al Aksa members."

Hundreds of police rushed to the scene and after a tense one-hour standoff, the gunmen left peacefully when Mr. Abbas agreed to consider their demands.

President Abbas was elected a year ago on a platform of restoring law and order, a vital element for Palestinian statehood. But his security forces have been unable to seize control from the well-armed militants who rule the streets.

The incident was a major embarrassment for the Palestinian Authority, as it tries to lure thousands of pilgrims to Bethlehem for Christmas.

"What happened is regrettable, especially since it comes at a time when the city is preparing for Christmas festivities," said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.

A lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence is expected to bring the most tourists to Bethlehem in five years. But Palestinian officials say they are worried that the spectacle of masked men armed with assault rifles parading through Manger Square will scare visitors away.