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Palestinian Police Assume New Political Security Duty in Bethlehem - 2002-08-20

Two Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed by violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The deaths follow the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem, where Palestinian police once again patrolled the streets.

A jeep makes its way along one of the narrow streets of central Bethlehem. Inside are several young men in freshly starched blue camouflage uniforms, with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders.

They are part of the Palestinian police force that is once again on patrol in Bethlehem and the surrounding towns, including Beit Jala and Beit Sahur.

The Palestinian police only have a few vehicles, and right now most of the patrols are on foot, sometimes talking to the merchants sitting by their stalls on the street. "You have to move back from the road, you are blocking the street" the policeman tells one woman.

It is part of their normal duties, the police say, to watch out for public safety and enforce order. But it is not all that is expected of this police force.

Bethlehem district police chief Captain Ala-edin Hosni says he is very aware of the mission for his men. "Do not forget that also we have to take care of political security, which means that we are not going to allow any military operation against Israel," he said.

That was part of the deal worked out between Israelis and Palestinians on Sunday: that Israel would pull its troops out of Bethlehem and surrounding towns if the Palestinian police would keep order and crack down on militants to curb attacks against Israel. Bethlehem has become the test case for possible further withdrawals of Israeli forces from other Palestinian areas.

Of course, Palestinians are quick to point out that the Israeli troops have just moved a few kilometers down the road and can come back any time they want.

But life in Bethlehem has regained some sense of normalcy after the recent months of curfews and Israeli occupation. People are back on the streets to do their shopping, without having to hurry back home before curfew time.

Fatima Aimon, who is out with her two sons, said it used to be difficult to try to get food for the family. "Inshallah," she says. "God willing, I hope it will get better now that the Israelis are gone."