JERUSALEM, Oct. 28 (JTA) — Israeli officials have decided to withdraw troops from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, despite two Palestinian terror attacks in which five Israelis were killed.
In one attack Sunday, a Palestinian gunman killed at least four Israelis and wounded about 40 others when he sprayed automatic gunfire on a crowd waiting at a bus stop in the coastal city of Hadera.
The attack took place as Israel was poised to begin withdrawing from Bethlehem.
According to witnesses, a Palestinian gunman got out of a car and began firing at random.
Israeli police shot and killed the gunman and another Palestinian who had remained in the car.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was a reprisal for the slaying of its leader, Fathi Shakaki, in Malta in October 1995. That attack was blamed on the Mossad, but Israel declined to comment on whether it was behind the shooting.
A senior officer in the Israel Defense Force told Army Radio on Sunday night that the two terrorists who carried out the Hadera attack were members of the Palestinian police force and of Islamic Jihad.
Hadera, located north of Tel Aviv, is at one of Israel’s narrowest points. Only seven miles from the West Bank, it has been a frequent target for attacks by Palestinian terrorists.
Earlier Sunday, Palestinian gunmen shot and killed an Israeli soldier in a drive-by shooting in Israel.
The attack took place near the West Bank city of Tulkarm, where a suspected terrorist who belonged to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement was killed a day earlier.
The terrorist was one of the Palestinian gunmen who carried out the abduction and cold-blooded murders of two Israeli restaurant owners last January, according to Israeli security officials quoted by the Jerusalem Post. The man had also been involved in many shooting attacks on Israelis near Tulkarm, the officials said.
An anonymous caller told The Associated Press that the Al Aksa Brigade, which is affiliated with Fatah, killed the Israeli soldier.
Following the two terror attacks Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his Security Cabinet to discuss how to respond.
At that meeting, Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer agreed to continue with plans to withdraw Israeli troops from Bethlehem and from the neighboring town of Beit Jalla.
According to Israel Radio, Ben-Eliezer believed that despite Sunday’s terror attacks, the IDF should withdraw from Bethlehem and Beit Jalla because the Palestinians had maintained quiet in those areas.
Soon after the meeting, the first tanks began leaving Bethlehem.
Israel agreed to the withdrawal last Friday, when U.S. officials hosted a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian security officials.
Israel had planned to withdraw from Bethlehem on Saturday, but delayed the move, charging that the Palestinians had not fulfilled their part of the agreement to stop all gunfire and attacks against Israelis.
In its biggest operation in areas under Palestinian control since the two sides signed their first interim peace accords in 1993, Israel took up positions earlier this month in and around six of the largest Palestinian-controlled cities in the West Bank — in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Kalkilya.
The operation was launched the Oct. 17 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
President Bush and a host of other U.S. officials repeatedly criticized the Israeli thrust into the Palestinian cities in the West Bank and called for an Israeli withdrawal.
The United States has been urging the two sides to reach a cease-fire to prevent Arab states from abandoning the U.S.-led international campaign against terrorism.
On Oct. 25, Israeli troops withdrew from a Palestinian village in the West Bank they had invaded a day earlier. During the sweep through the village of Beit Rima, Israeli officials said, soldiers arrested Palestinians suspected of involvement in the Ze’evi assassination.
The withdrawal took place after soldiers carried out an operation to “prevent further terror attacks on Israeli civilians and to root out the infrastructure of terror,” the army said in a statement.