Israel withdrew tanks and troops from Palestinian neighborhoods in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron in the early hours of Monday morning, in a fresh attempt to breathe life into a truce negotiated under U.S. pressure.
Eyewitnesses said tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled out of hilltop Palestinian neighborhoods before dawn, without any exchange of fire with local Palestinian gunmen.
Israeli forces took over the strategic ridges in Hebron two weeks ago following repeated shootings at Jewish settlers in the city center below.
Israel is also preparing additional steps, such as removing roadblocks inside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and reopening border crossings for Palestinians with Egypt and Jordan, the two sides said.
"The guiding principle is that wherever there is quiet, and the quiet continues, we will remove the (restrictions)," Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said on Sunday. But he also warned, "if the shooting is resumed, we will return immediately."
The withdrawal followed a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian security officials in the city.
The United States has been urging both sides to show restraint as the Americans attempt to build support in Arab and Muslim countries for their anti–terror campaign.
The truce has been sorely tested on both sides since it was agreed on Sept 26.
On Sunday Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian accused of orchestrating a suicide bombing that killed 22 people in June.
Palestinians called the death of Abed–Rahman Hamad, a regional leader of the radical Islamic group Hamas, a grave violation of the cease–fire.
Sharon, citing Israel's right to defend itself against attacks like the Tel Aviv disco bombing for which he held Hamad responsible, said in a speech on Sunday the shooting "was not the first nor the last."
Hamad, 35, knew the Israelis were after him and rarely strayed far from his home, except to visit a nearby mosque for prayers, acquaintances said.
He attended pre–dawn prayers Sunday and was atop his flat–top roof when he was hit by fire from Israeli troops about 300 yards (meters) away, according to acquaintances.
The shooting marked a return to Israel's policy of targeted killings. Over the past year, Israel has carried out dozens of such attacks against Palestinian militants suspected of violence against Israelis. Sunday's shooting was the first since the cease–fire was declared.
Several thousand Palestinians attended Hamad's funeral on Sunday afternoon. Gunmen fired into the air and mourners carried leaflets reading, "Revenge, revenge," and "No to the cease–fire."
"Resistance against this ugly aggression is the only language which can be used, and there is no doubt that Hamas will react to this ugly assassination crime," said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a senior Hamas leader.
Hamas has carried out multiple suicide bombings against Israel, including the disco bombing, the deadliest single attack in the current round of Mideast fighting.
Israel had named Hamad as one of the militants it wanted arrested by Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians had detained Hamad, but then released him about a month ago, Israel said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has demanded that Hamas and other militant groups observe the truce, but they have refused to endorse it.
Sharon has demanded that the Palestinians make arrests before easing security restrictions which have prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from reaching their jobs in Israel. The Palestinians call it collective punishment, while Israel says it is necessary to prevent attacks.Reuse content