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Palestinians Prepare to Patrol Bethlehem - 2003-07-02

Palestinian police are preparing to resume patrols in the West Bank town, Bethlehem, as the next step in the implementation of the "road map" peace plan. The transfer of authority does not require any redeployment of Israeli troops, because they had no fixed presence in Bethlehem. However, with Palestinian police on the street, Israeli troops will not be free to enter the city to arrest wanted militants as they have often done in the past.

Israel will continue to control the area around the religious site "Rachel's Tomb," as stipulated in the Oslo Accords.

The security transfer was agreed to ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's closed-door talks with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

Tuesday, both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas said the time has come for peace and urged that the opportunity to find a solution to the long conflict not be lost.

During their talks, officials say the two leaders agreed to form joint committees on several crucial issues, including security and the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.

Mr. Abbas is demanding that Israel free Palestinian prisoners, stop assassinating militant leaders and withdraw from the West Bank.

Officials say, during Tuesday's talks, Mr. Sharon said Israel would allow Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to travel to the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, where he has been trapped for the past year by Israeli troops. But news reports say the Israeli leader also made it clear Israel does not intend to restore unlimited freedom of movement for Mr. Arafat.

Meanwhile, a new survey of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip says 80 percent are in favor of an indefinite ceasefire, to boost the road map to peace -- up from 71 percent in April.