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Israeli Soldiers Leave Palestinian-Ruled Town - 2001-08-30

Israel has withdrawn its soldiers from the West Bank town of Beit Jala after a two-day incursion designed to stop Palestinian shooting at the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Gilo.

Life is returning to normal in Beit Jala as weary residents begin to assess the damage following two-days of fierce gun battles between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers.

Tanks, armored personnel carriers, and troops pulled out of this Palestinian-ruled town; leaving behind businesses riddled with bullet holes and homes littered with shattered glass and broken furniture.

Nabila Dakkak says Israeli soldiers setup a makeshift base in her office, which houses a local entertainment club. "Inside the two rooms everything was upside down, ruined," she says. "All the windows were broken and all our instruments, you know we have a lot of folklore instruments, were demolished."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the decision to pull the soldiers out of Beit Jala after Palestinians agreed to stop attacks on the adjacent Jewish community of Gilo.

Israel has been under heavy pressure from the United States and other countries to withdraw from the area.

Palestinian policemen and gunmen with automatic weapons strolled through Beit Jala as local activists declared what they perceive as a victory in their confrontation with Israeli soldiers.

Khader Abu Abbara is a resident of Beit Jala and a central committee member of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "This is the first time and the longest period of clashes and confrontation, I mean armed confrontation, between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he says. "I think we have defeated Sharon and this is the first defeat of Sharon, militarily I mean."

Residents of Beit Jala remain shaken after two-days of nearly constant gun battles.

Reverend Jadallah Shihadeh, of the local Lutheran Church, says the 45 children living at the church orphanage are emotionally scarred by the experience. "They were scared. They were terrified. They are traumatized and now they are shocked," he says. "We have to deal with the shock. We have to have time for our children."

Israeli officials are warning that if there are new attacks on Gilo troops could be sent back into Beit Jala.

Gilo, which is next to Jerusalem, was built on disputed land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.