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Israeli Forces Begin Pulling Out of Bethlehem - 2002-08-19

Israel has begun withdrawing its forces from the West Bank town of Bethlehem and surrounding areas. It is the first step in carrying out an agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The pact calls for a phased pull-out of Israeli forces and for Palestinians to calm the current situation.

Israeli troops and tanks were reported leaving Bethlehem and surrounding villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur late Monday evening. Reports indicated the situation was calm, as some 200 Palestinian police prepared to take control of the area.

The withdrawal follows an agreement reached a day earlier between Israeli Defense Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer and Palestinian Interior Minister Abdelrazak al-Yahya.

According to the deal Israel is to withdraw from Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip if the Palestinians take over security and crack down on militants to reduce violence.

Interior Minister al-Yahia said his forces were ready to take all necessary steps to keep security. He said he had been assured by the Israeli side that if the situation remains calm in other areas of the West Bank, Israeli forces would withdraw from there as well. He added that another high level meeting between the two sides would take place within a week.

It is hoped the current withdrawal deal might be the first step of a broader cease fire agreement that could end almost two years of violence and bloodshed.

Several Palestinian militant groups have however rejected the agreement. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and opposition groups based in Damascus have said they will continue their attacks against Israel.