The tentative withdrawal agreement came after a three-hour meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
Israeli forces would begin to withdraw only if the Palestinian side “takes responsibility to calm the security situation and reduce violence,” the Israeli defense ministry said in a statement.
Nabil abu Rudaineh, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the pullout would “prepare the atmosphere” for troop withdrawals elsewhere. Both sides agreed that the withdrawal would be completed “in the next 48 hours,” he told Reuters.
Yehiyeh told the Associated Press on Monday the Bethlehem pullout would come in one operation that would begin “in the coming few hours,” but said the Gaza withdrawal would come in stages.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Sofer, however, told reporters no timetable had been set on the withdrawals.
Ben-Eliezer said in a statement that the plan, known as “Gaza First,” would “build trust for both sides, which is essential for any future security and diplomatic steps.”
Israeli defense forces would begin pulling out of other reoccupied regions, as long as Palestinian security officials effectively control militants from launching further anti-Israeli attacks, the Israeli defense minister said.
Israeli troops are stationed mostly along the outskirts of Palestinian cities and towns in Gaza, but are deployed more heavily in the West Bank, where Israeli forces have reoccupied seven of the eight major towns since June.
Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, rejected the arrangement, vowing to continue anti-Israeli attacks to protest the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Ismail Haniya, a spokesman for Hamas, described the plan as “nothing but an Israeli plot to sabotage the intifada. The Palestinian uprising is legitimate self defense.” The most recent Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began on September 2000.
Meanwhile, news agencies quoted Palestinian officials Monday as saying Abu Nidal, a 65-year-old former Palestinian guerilla leader, had been found dead in his apartment in Baghdad. Nidal’s body was reportedly found bearing multiple bullet wounds three days ago.
The officials said they received reports from Baghad that Nidal, who was suffering from cancer, had committed suicide, but offered no further explanation. The U.S. State Department once considered Nidal to be the world’s most dangerous terrorist; his presence in Baghdad was one reason why Washington classified Iraq as state supporting terrorists.