Israel leaves Bethlehem, despite 5 deaths

The Washington Post

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala Sunday night, as the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon swallowed its anger over the killing Sunday of five Israelis inside Israel by Palestinian gunmen.

The withdrawal was designed as the first stage of a pullback from six West Bank Palestinian cities invaded by Israeli forces after the Oct. 17 assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi. The Bush administration urged the Sharon government to pull out of the towns so as not to enflame the conflict with the Palestinians.

Twenty-two Palestinians, including several civilians, died in the 11-day occupation. Businesses and schools were shut and several buildings and houses were badly damaged. Tanks crushed cars, knocked over power poles and chewed up asphalt as they roamed the city.

At about 10 p.m., residents gingerly went into the street as tank motors roared, heralding the exit. Palestinian officials moved troops into neighborhoods abandoned by the Israelis and warned residents who had fled to wait until morning to return home. They also asked Palestinians not to shoot guns into the air in celebration, for fear the Israelis would rush back at the sound of gunfire.

In Israel, somber attention focused on the day’s killings, which took place in two separate attacks. The deadliest attack took place in the Israeli coastal city of Hadera. Gunmen traveling in a red Mitsubishi jeep sprayed bullets on pedestrians along a main boulevard, killing four women. A plainclothes policeman shot dead both killers.

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

Earlier in the day, drive-by shooters killed an Israeli soldier near the northern West Bank frontier with Israel; the assailants escaped. The attack was claimed by the al-Aqsa Brigade, an armed unit of Fatah, the biggest faction of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

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