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Israel Postpones Withdrawal of Troops from Bethlehem - 2001-10-27

Israel has postponed indefinitely its withdrawal from the Palestinian-controlled towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jala. An Israeli government spokesman says the decision followed continuing violence in the West Bank Saturday, when Palestinian gunmen opened fire at Israeli targets.

Palestinian and Israeli security commanders had met to coordinate plans for a withdrawal, meant to be the first phase of an Israeli pullout from towns under Palestinian control. The Israeli spokesman said Israel will, in his words, "reexamine its decision if Palestinians keep the calm and security."

Israel is demanding that the Palestinians enforce a full cease-fire and arrest militants before they withdraw their forces.

Palestinian officials condemned the Israeli decision to postpone the withdrawal. Earlier, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said there will be "no cease-fire" unless Israel removes its forces.

Israeli troops invaded six Palestinian towns following last week's assassination of cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi. Dozens of Palestinians have died in fierce fighting as Israel moved to arrest those militants suspected to be connected to the assassination. Israel says it has rounded up more than 40 militants from various Palestinian groups since the operation began. Israel says of the four militants directly linked to the killing of Mr. Zeevi, two are in Israeli custody and two remain at large in the Palestinian territories.

The radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed it carried out the assassination in retaliation for the killing of its leader earlier this year by the Israeli military.

Security officials from both sides are expected to meet again Sunday to discuss Israel's withdrawal from other Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank. Israel has been under strong international pressure to pull back its troops and support a cease-fire shattered by recent violence.

The United States has been urging calm in the region as it tries to rally Arab and Islamic countries to support its strikes on terrorist and military targets in Afghanistan following last month's attacks on New York and Washington.

More than 700 Palestinians and nearly 200 Israelis have been killed in more than a year of fighting.