Israeli troops withdrew from Tulkarm, the second West Bank town to be transferred to Palestinian control under the terms of an agreement signed in September for expanding West Bank autonomy.
The withdrawal, which took place before dawn Sunday, came despite a spate of recent violence in the West Bank that has heightened security concerns for settlers living in the region.
Shortly after midnight, Israel Defense Force troops lowered the Israeli flag outside the former army headquarters in Tulkarm as control was transferred to an advance guard of Palestinian police officers.
The town was decorated with Palestinian flags and with photographs of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in celebration of the Palestinian officers’ arrival and the end of Israeli administration of the town.
Israel completed its withdrawal from the West Bank town of Jenin in mid- November.
Under the terms of the September accords, known as the Interim Agreement, Israel is scheduled to withdraw from four more West Bank population centers – Kalkilya, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem – by the end of December.
In March, the Palestinians are scheduled to assume control over major portions of Hebron, the only West Bank town where settlers live alongside Palestinians.
The redeployment from Tulkarm took place within hours of a drive-by shooting near the West Bank settlement of Neveh Daniel that wounded a settler and his 4- year-old daughter.
Yonatan Moshitz, from the West Bank settlement of Efrat, was listed in moderate condition after undergoing surgery on his legs.
His daughter was released from the hospital after being treated for glass splinters. Two other daughters in the car were reportedly not injured in the Saturday night attack.
Residents of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank issued warnings that settlers would confront additional security problems in the wake of an Israeli redeployment from the region.
Earlier this month, four Israeli soldiers were wounded in two shooting incidents in the West Bank.
Last Friday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 23-year-old Palestinian during demonstrations in Nablus.
Meanwhile, Israel eased restrictions on Palestinian workers from the West Bank, granting an additional 6,800 permits allowing the laborers to enter Israel.
In Hebron, where some 400 Jewish settlers live among 100,000 Palestinians, a group of 15 Palestinian police arrived Sunday to open up the district coordination office that will serve the area. Fifty settlers reportedly blocked the road outside the district office to protest the arrival of the police.
Another group of settlers reportedly blocked the main road between Hebron and Bethlehem to protest the Saturday night shooting of the settler and his daughter.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to the peace process during a meeting last Friday with Arafat at the Erez Crossing separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. It was Peres’ first meeting with Arafat since he became prime minister in the wake of the Nov. 4 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.