Israeli forces withdrew from the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Monday, in the first stage of what is hoped will be a larger pullout from other Palestinian areas in the future. While life in Bethlehem has regained some semblance of normalcy, many local residents say the Israeli withdrawal is nothing more than a public relations ploy aimed at countering international criticism of Israel's reoccupation of Palestinian land.
This is Manger Square in central Bethlehem. The bells peal from the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.
On one side of the square is the Bethlehem Center for Peace, which opened in time for the millennium celebration in 2000, when hopes were high that this town, so central to Christianity, would become a major tourist attraction.
Instead, last April, Bethlehem found itself caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when Israeli troops launched an offensive into the town to crack down on Palestinian militants. Several dozen armed Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity along with a number of civilians. It took more than a month to resolve the crisis. The Israeli troops left, came back - and now have left again. Bethlehem is only now slowly coming back to life.
Children scamper about, families are back out shopping without having to hurry home before curfew time. Music blares from loudspeakers, luring customers to buy the latest pop hits.
George Masrieh's little food shop and roadside restaurant is on the main market street, just up from Manger Square. He says the town has been through very difficult times during the recent Israeli occupation and curfew. "You had to stay in house for more than 15 hours [at a time]. You can't go outside," he said. "Our children can't go to school. We only opened our shop for three to four hours daily."
Mr. Masrieh says he hopes now things will be better, but he has his doubts. He points to the shoppers walking by and says, they just look, they don't buy.
Switching to Arabic, Mr. Masrieh says the Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem and surrounding villages doesn't help all that much.
He says the Israelis are still not issuing work permits for Palestinians and so he says people just get poorer. And, he says there is still no real freedom of movement. I've been to Brazil several times, he says, but I can't go to Jerusalem, which is just down the road. Is this going to get us any closer to independence or our own state? I don't think so, he adds.
Those sentiments are echoed by other Bethlehem residents who say the Israeli withdrawal is a public relations ploy - designed to make Israel look better in the eyes of the international community, especially the United States.
Daoud el-Zeir is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. He says this withdrawal agreement was a bad idea. He says all the Israelis have really done is to pull out from the center of Bethlehem to outside the town. People still cannot move about freely, he says, at least not very far.
Daoud el Zeir says all previous peace negotiations were aimed at Israel's withdrawal from the land it took after the last Arab-Israeli war. That is still the Palestinian demand and he argues that to accept anything less even on an interim basis is a bad idea. He says the Palestinian Authority made a bad mistake accepting the Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem.
Israeli officials have said the recent incursions into Palestinian areas were necessary to crack down on militants and to curb attacks against Israelis. Those same officials say Israeli troops will pull out if and when the Palestinians can take over security and curb the militants. And, Bethlehem has turned into a test case.
No one knows that better than Captain Ala-edin Hosni, chief of police of Bethlehem district. In a conversation in his modest office on Manger Square, he says his men will do their best to maintain security. He says knows that part of their job is to curb any militant activity. But, none of this is easy.
Captain Hosni says his men have neither the means of communication nor transport. The Israelis totally destroyed the infrastructure, he says. So, his men rely on foot patrols and private cars to get around and often on their own mobile phones to communicate. Captain Hosni likens his job to being thrown into deep water with one's hands tied and then being told to swim.
Despite these complaints, the people of Bethlehem seem to be breathing a bit easier, and are more relaxed as they go about their business. But, people talk of just getting by, of somehow finding enough money to send their children to school as the new term begins. No one talks of the grand hopes once embodied in the Bethlehem Center for Peace which now sits unused in Manger Square - a bleak reminder of what many here feel is a disappearing dream.