Bethlehem rejoices as Israelis withdraw

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The Independent Online
Israeli troops handed control of Bethlehem to the Palestinians yesterday in time for Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO, to join celebrations in the town on Christmas Eve. In Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, crowds tore down the security fence protecting the Israeli police station as the last soldiers drove off.

"The soldiers will leave and the occupation will end," said Nasser Zatara, who had come from his village to celebrate the pull-out. "The Israelis won't come back. I don't think Likud [the main Israeli right-wing party] will win the next election, and even if they do, they will have to follow Rabin's policies on the withdrawal."

As the last Israeli forces prepared to depart under terms of the present phase of the Oslo accord, members of Fatah, the strongest Palestinian political movement, started to put on red armbands and take control of the streets. The Israelis wanted to avert a repetition of the scenes in Nablus last week, when a premature announcement of their troops' departure resulted in a detachment being trapped in the old military headquarters. Hours before they left, Israeli soldiers had taken down the Star of David flag, which they had to abandon in Nablus. As they departed, Bethlehem residents switched on the red, green and yellow lights of a Christmas tree in the square.

Bethlehem, a town of 45,000, of whom 40 per cent are Christian, is decorated with nationalist and religious symbols. Pictures of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus alternate with portraits of Mr Arafat, with his stubbly beard and keffiyeh headdress. He is expected to attend a Christmas Eve mass in the Church of the Nativity and to address a mass meeting in the square outside.

Under terms of the Oslo agreement, Israel cedes military control of six Palestinian towns as well as civil and police powers in the villages where two-thirds of Palestinians on the West Bank live. The pull-out has already happened in Jenin, Qalqiliya, Tulkarm and Nablus and, after the redeployment from Bethlehem, Israeli forces will leave Ramallah by the end of the month. Redeployment in Hebron is more limited because of the presence of settlers in the centre of town but is to be completed by March.

Like many people in central Bethlehem, Abed Salem, a tourist guide and gift-shop owner, was standing watching the Israeli police stations as the troops prepared to go.

"It will make a little difference," he said. "It will make life better for us. You won't have police telling you go inside because you are a Muslim. We will have Palestinian police. Bethlehem will be a different place."

Not everybody was quite so jubilant. Mr Tabash, the middle- aged owner of a curio shop ambitiously called the Bethlehem Arts Gallery, was impassively watching the crowd in the square. "It is a change and people like to celebrate a change," he said. "The big powers wanted this, so the Palestinians almost get a state of their own." He said he was a Christian and his lack of enthusiasm may stem from Christian fears that under the Palestinian Authority they will face harassment from the Muslim majority.

Overall, however, the 1.2 million Palestinians on the West Bank feel that their lives will be improved by the partial Israeli withdrawal. Mr Zatara, 24, who works in a quarry earning the equivalent of pounds 7 a day, had come to Bethlehem with six workmates to celebrate, though some expectations may turn out to be over-optimistic. Asked about the 135,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank, he said: "They will have to go. There will be no peace if they stay."