After Warm Sharon-abbas Meeting, Palestinians Take over in Bethlehem

Suddenly, after nearly three years of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians, comparisons are being drawn to the spirit of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s — with all the optimism and skepticism that those years produced.

In a show of warmth that appeared remarkable against the backdrop of the intifada, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, appeared before the cameras in Jerusalem on Tuesday with encouraging words about peace between the two nations.

The meeting was followed Wednesday by an Israeli troop redeployment from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, turning security control over to the Palestinian Authority as called for under the “road map” peace plan.

The Israel Defense Force began pulling its troops out of Bethlehem around lunchtime Wednesday. The troops will hold positions around the city, and Israel will maintain control of the Jewish holy site of Rachel’s Tomb, on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

Palestinian police officers took to the streets of the city soon afterward to applause from residents, and also deployed in the neighboring towns of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahur, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

Within an hour, however, Israeli security forces were placed on high alert following a terrorist infiltration along the border with the West Bank. Roadblocks were set up around the towns of Kfar Saba, Rosh Ha’ayin and Petach Tikva, causing major traffic jams.

The Bethlehem withdrawal follows the turnover of security control in the Gaza Strip to P.A. forces on Sunday and Monday. That came after the three main Palestinian terrorist groups agreed to a temporary cease-fire on attacks against Israel.

The steps were the fruit of heavy American pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to stop violence and resuscitate the political process through the road map.

A senior IDF official said Wednesday that the end of the intifada may be near and that it will signal a victory for Israel, Ha’aretz reported. The officer said that Abbas is serious about stopping terrorism because he understands that it has been a mistake, Israel Radio reported.

Tuesday’s meeting between Sharon and Abbas was to discuss ways to advance the road map. It was their third meeting in recent weeks. Senior officials from both sides took part in the discussions.

One decision taken was to form joint committees to address the issues of security, incitement, prisoners and economic advancement, the report said.

Sharon also reportedly said that at the next meeting with Abbas, he would make an announcement on the release of Palestinian prisoners not involved in the murder of Israelis.

U.S. officials called Tuesday’s talks encouraging.

“We are before a new opportunity for the possibility for a better future for both peoples. A future full of opportunities and hope is today closer than in the past,” Sharon said.

Abbas called for a “just peace” that “will bring a better future for everyone.”

“Our conflict with you is a political conflict and we will end it through political means,” Abbas said. “We do not have hostility with the Israeli people and we have no interest in continuing the conflict with them.”

Observers were impressed with the apparent warmth between the two men. On Wednesday, Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres, one of the architects of the Oslo peace accords, told Israel Radio, “I must tell you that the atmosphere yesterday at the meeting between the two prime ministers reminded me very much of Oslo.”

He was referring to a spirit of cooperation and hope that many people felt as the Oslo process moved forward in the 1990s.

Many others, however, felt their skepticism about Oslo had been vindicated when the process collapsed in late 2000 and the Palestinians reverted to terrorism — and they fear that the terrorist groups’ current cease-fire is a ruse to buy time to rearm.

Indeed, a fatal terrorist shooting in the West Bank on Monday that killed a Bulgarian road worker, along with continuing shooting attacks, by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, underscored the fragility of the new situation.

That was followed by several other shooting attacks on Tuesday, none of them fatal.

U.S. officials stressed that much work remains to be done; some Israeli ministers called the cease-fire a ruse by Palestinian terrorist organizations to buy time to regroup; and some Palestinians warned Israel against steps that would end the truce.

Some of this skepticism seemed to be borne out Monday, when gunmen from the Fatah militia killed a Bulgarian worker in a shooting attack in the northern West Bank.

Christo Radkov, 46, was fatally wounded in the attack while driving near Jenin.

The Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist militia of Abbas’ Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the shooting. A local leader of the Al-Aksa Brigade said the group did not accept the cease-fire.

Despite the shooting, Israel and the Palestinian Authority moved forward with the road map.

The Israeli army on Monday completed its transfer of security responsibility to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. This including redeploying from Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip and reopening the strip’s main north-south highway to Palestinian traffic.

The official declaration by Hamas and Islamic Jihad of a three-month moratorium on attacks against Israel followed speculation that the military, political and financial pressure on the groups was too much for them to bear.

The cease-fire declaration by Hamas and Islamic Jihad was qualified by a number of items, including the demand that Israel halt “targeted killings” of Palestinian terrorist masterminds and release all Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli opinion on the cease-fire was divided.

Some say Israel should welcome any offer by the Palestinians to cease terrorist attacks and stop the violence. Others maintain that a truce will only allow terrorist organizations to regroup, while letting the Palestinian Authority duck its pledges to dismantle the groups.

Among the critics was Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who called the cease-fire declaration a “ticking bomb” in the long term.

“The main issue is to dismantle the infrastructure of terror,” he said on Channel One.

The United States called the truce a step in the right direction. But a White House spokesperson also stressed that the road map called on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle the terrorist groups.

The latest developments topped off a visit to the region by President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the latest of a string of senior administration officials dispatched to the region.

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