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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bethlehem Given to Palestinians

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli patrols quit the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Wednesday, clearing the way for Palestinians to resume security control in a deal both sides hope will advance the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace.

Military vehicles streamed out of Bethlehem in the final hours before the handover. Under the deal, Palestinian police will curb local militants and prevent attacks on Israelis.

Though relieved at the end to Israeli incursions and curfews, many Bethlehem residents remained skeptical, mindful of the military checkpoints that will stay on encircling the city.

"It is a ceremonial withdrawal, not a real one," Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said of the deal sealed at a meeting Tuesday between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem.

Committing themselves to end almost three years of conflict, the leaders agreed to set up four committees to help implement the road map, which sees a Palestinian state by 2005 in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip beside a secure Israel.

"We can do this together and the conditions now are promising to make further progress," a Palestinian official quoted Abbas as telling Sharon. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Sharon and Abbas would meet again next Tuesday.

"There is a new reality today," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio on Wednesday. "In my opinion [Palestinians] want to change direction."

The expected Bethlehem handover follows an Israeli troop pullback from much of Gaza that restored free movement for Palestinians for the first time since after they rose up for independence in September 2000.

The Israeli army said its forces in Gaza came under fire twice, but sustained no casualties -- a relative calm. By noon, a spokesman for the Palestinian security forces said they had fully deployed through the densely populated coastal strip.

The road map requires Palestinian police to fill security vacuums wherever Israeli troops and tanks pull out, and Palestinian commanders promised to prevent attacks against Israel from Bethlehem, an Israeli security source said.

Revered by Christians as the site of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem saw intensive fighting as Israel reoccupied it last year following waves of suicide bombings. The handover deal is an early achievement for U.S. mediators pushing the road map.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed the statements made by Abbas and Sharon.

"The president is pleased that the process is continuing with Prime Minister Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon working as hard as they are and as diligently as they are in the spirit that they are," Fleischer said.

On Wednesday, U.S. officials announced a $30 million aid package for the Palestinians to help restore public works in the West Bank and Gaza disrupted by incursions, curfews and clashes. On Sunday, leading Palestinian militants declared a temporary halt to attacks, but the truce was quickly challenged by two West Bank gun ambushes in which two people were killed.

Still, Abbas voiced optimism in his meeting with Sharon that the cease-fire would hold if Israel refrained from taking action that would increase tension.