Palestinian gunmen slowly filed out of the sanctuary today, after several days of intricate negotiations. Two Palestinians were carried out on stretchers. The men boarded Israeli buses, and were taken to an Israeli army base for questioning.
The 39 suspected Palestinian militants inside the church were expelled from the West Bank, with 13 exiled to European nations and another 26 released to the Gaza Strip, as outlined by the European-brokered agreement.
A British military plane later flew the 13 Palestinian men to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, a temporary stop until they continue on to their host countries, which include Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and possibly Canada.
The 13 deportees included nine members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, and three members of the militant Hamas Group. The thirteenth man is Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian intelligence chief in Bethlehem.
The 26 others were driven in two Israeli buses to the Gaza Strip, under U.S. escort, and arrived shortly after noon to cheering crowds.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said most Israeli troops were leaving Bethlehem and that the complete withdrawal was “a matter of hours or days.”
The pullout of Israeli troops from Bethlehem was delayed when ten foreign activists, including four U.S. citizens, refused to leave the sanctuary with the others. Israeli police in riot gear later entered the church to forcefully remove the activists. The activists, who entered the church last week in a show of support for the Palestinians, refused to leave unless they were guaranteed legal representation.
Another 73 Palestinian civilians and policemen also left the church today.
International journalists touring the church with Franciscan priests described it as ravaged by the standoff. Some sacred artifacts inside the church had been defiled with food remnants. A Western reporter said the basilica was dirty, but that the grotto revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus as “pristine”.
In Washington, President George Bush called the end of the standoff a positive move towards forging a peace arrangement.
“The end of the standoff in Bethlehem is a positive development that removes an obstacle to restoring security cooperation between the parties and should advance the prospects for resuming a political peace process,” he said in a prepared statement released Friday.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops and tanks continued to gather near the Gaza Strip, following the Israeli cabinet’s approval of retaliatory military action for the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 15 Israelis on Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed retaliation for the bombing, which Israeli authorities believe was orchestrated by the militant group Hamas, based in Gaza.