Israeli Army Pulls Out of Bethlehem
The United States has pressured Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end incursions into Palestinian territories as it tries to shore up Arab support for attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan.
For its part, Israel said Palestinians would have to restore calm before its troops would make any further withdrawals.
“There has to be a cease-fire,” Raanan Gissin, a government spokesman, said. “There has to be a complete cessation of terrorist tactics.”
Israel began its pullout from Bethlehem Sunday night, even though Palestinian attacks in Israel earlier in the day killed five people and wounded more than 30.
Palestinian gunmen riding in a jeep sprayed automatic gunfire on a busy street in the city of Hadera, killing four women and injuring more than 30 people before police detectives shot and killed the two gunmen. An Israeli soldier was killed in a separate shooting nearby.
The militant Palestinian group Islamic Holy War claimed responsibility for the attack in Hadera, saying the attackers came from a refugee camp in Jenin, one of the cities that had been held by Israeli forces. A videotape of the attackers holding M-16 assault rifles and declaring their readiness to die was distributed to news organizations.
Israeli officials said the attackers had served on the Palestinian police force.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the attack.
“We are following this up to find out who is behind this,” Arafat said. “There is a decision in the Palestinian leadership to stop these operations in spite of the continuing Israeli escalation.”
The Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities began Oct. 18, after Israel’s Tourism Minister, Rehavaam Zeevi, was assassinated by Palestinian radicals. The move sparked violence throughout the West Bank and more than 40 Palestinians have been killed, half of them noncombatants.
Last week, Israeli forces arrested 10 Palestinians in a midnight raid on the village of Beit Rima. At least six Palestinians were killed in the gun battle. Two of the captured men are suspected in the Zeevi murder, Israeli military officials said.
Sharon is tentatively scheduled to visit Washington early next month, but that trip may be postponed because of the security situation. He is still planning to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Israel on Thursday.
President Bush met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the White House last Tuesday.
U.S. officials are increasingly worried that the intensification of Mideast violence could undermine efforts to bring moderate Arab states into a coalition to fight international terrorism.
The U.S. first requested a withdrawal last week in a State Department statement which called upon the Israeli government to leave Palestinian controlled areas “immediately.”
That led Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to comment: “The things that came out of there [the United States], with all due respect, are not valid.”
Israeli newspapers described the exchange as a sign of a growing rift in relations with the United States, which provides Israel with $3 billion in annual aid.
U.S officials have also called on the Palestinian Authority to do everything in its power to halt violence and terror.
Arafat says he is doing everything he can to stop the violence, but said Israeli actions have fueled anger beyond his control. And his ability to crack down on radical groups was weakened after the militant Islamic group Hamas vowed to avenge the killing of one of its top bombmakers, Ayman Halaweh.
Israeli officials had no comment on the car explosion that killed Halaweh, but Sharon’s office said in a statement Halaweh was involved in eight suicide bombings in which 48 people were killed — including one at a Tel Aviv disco in June that killed 21 people.
Pressure is also mounting on Sharon. Representatives of the moderate Labor party are growing uncomfortable with Israel’s largest-scale incursion into Palestinian territory in seven years, while Sharon’s hard-line allies are calling for even harsher action.
At least 730 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 191 on the Israeli side since the revolt began in September 2000 after peace talks stalled.