| Palestinian special forces prepare to take control of the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (AFP)
Bethlehem, July 2 (Reuters): Church bells pealed in celebration today after Israel handed over the West Bank city of Bethlehem to Palestinian police under a security pact to bolster a new US-backed peace plan.
Armed Palestinian police, their patrol car sirens blaring, fanned out through the ancient town revered by Christians worldwide as the birthplace of Jesus, as well as in the adjacent towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. But joy over Israel’s security handover was tempered by the fact that Israeli troops continued to restrict movement on roads in and out of the town on Jerusalem’s southern outskirts.
“This withdrawal is cosmetic and theatrical because we are still living in a prison if we cannot move from one place to another,” said Sharif Salem, a government employee.
The accord requires Palestinian police to fill the security gap created by the Israeli pullback by cracking down if needed on militants planning to attack Israelis. Israel says if they do not do so it could reoccupy Bethlehem.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas pledged to jail militants who violate a ceasefire declared at the weekend.
“We will crack down on them. I think the Palestinian people will accept this because they accepted the truce and are keen to keep it. So from now on anybody, any faction, any party which violates it — we will put them in prison,” he said.
Bethlehem was battered by fierce fighting and full Israeli reoccupation at the peak of a Palestinian uprising for statehood last year. The upheaval included an army siege of militants holed up inside the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square.
Residents today saluted or honked their car horns at blue uniformed police back on duty. Policemen held AK-47 assault rifles and, in some cases, waved the black-green-red-and-white Palestinian flag.
About 100 police officers marched through the centre to underline that they were in charge after a year-long absence.
Army vehicles streamed out of Bethlehem and Israeli troops packed up equipment in the final hours before the handover.
“It is good that they withdrew. At least now, we can feel safe in our homes without having soldiers knocking on our doors (to make raids),” said Fatima Gadallah, a housewife.
The “road map” peace plan envisages a Palestinian state by 2005 in the West Bank and Gaza alongside a secure Israel which captured both territories in the 1967 war.
Declaring chances for co-existence had never been better, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed in talks with Abbas yesterday to set up four committees dealing with issues like security and prisoners to push ahead on the road map.
Sharon’s Cabinet issued a statement today saying he had pressed Abbas to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” and halt incitement in Palestinian media and schools but that Israel was looking into freeing a number of prisoners, which would help Abbas reduce the popular appeal of militants.
Abbas said the truce would not hold without prisoners being freed. “If we wait for three months without any release of prisoners, the ceasefire will break down,” he said.
Sharon and Abbas are to meet again next Tuesday.
Earlier this week, Israeli forces vacated the northern Gaza Strip and reopened its main highway to Palestinian traffic for the first time since the uprising erupted in September 2000. Islamist militant groups and the main national Fatah movement on Sunday proclaimed ceasefires of three to six months, calming conditions on the ground for the initial withdrawals.
But Israeli officials said pull-outs from more volatile West Bank cities reoccupied after a rash of suicide bombings, and a reopening of main roads between them, would not proceed unless Palestinian authorities began dismantling militant groups.
Armed splinter groups within Fatah have refused to endorse the ceasefire and have staged two attacks in the West Bank since Monday. A Bulgarian in an Israeli work crew was killed in one attack and Israeli soldiers shot dead a gunman in the other.
But the number of intelligence alerts about pending militant attacks has dropped from scores a day to just a few since the truce was proclaimed, Israeli officials say.