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Palestinian Police Resume Patrols in Bethlehem - 2002-08-20

Palestinian police are again patrolling the streets of Bethlehem, in the West Bank, after Israeli forces pulled out late Monday. It is the first step in what is to be a staged withdrawal of Israeli troops from other Palestinian areas. However, it is a fragile process as Palestinian militant groups reject the deal, and violence flared elsewhere in the West Bank overnight.

It was a low-key affair, without fanfare or street celebrations, as Israeli troops pulled back from their positions in Bethlehem and some 200 Palestinian police moved in to begin patrolling the streets.

The nighttime curfew was lifted and police said life should get back to normal. But they also vowed to check cars for anyone carrying weapons. Perhaps because of the late hour, few people or cars were reported on the streets.

Bethlehem and the surrounding villages are the first test case of an agreement worked out between Israeli Defense Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer and Palestinian Interior Minister Abdelrazak al-Yahya on Sunday. If the Palestinian police can keep calm and crack down on militants, Israel says it is prepared to withdraw from areas in the Gaza Strip and from other West Bank towns.

On the one hand, there is hope the withdrawal plan will lead to an overall cease fire that could end nearly two years of violence. But there is also skepticism the agreement will work. Just how fragile the process is, is evident. Militant groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have already rejected the withdrawal deal and vow to continue attacks against Israelis.

And the violence continued elsewhere. Just hours after withdrawing from Bethlehem, Israeli troops and tanks moved into a refugee camp in the West Bank town, Tulkarem. One Palestinian was killed in an exchange of gunfire, and suspected Palestinian militants were rounded up.