Israelis agree to pull out of Bethlehem but prime ministers' smiles mask fresh tension

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Israeli troops are to withdraw from the West Bank city of Bethlehem today.

The withdrawal is the second under the United States-backed road-map peace plan, and follows Israel's pull-out from the Gaza Strip on Monday. If soldiers stay out, it will bring to an end a year of reoccupation by the Israeli army that has devastated Bethlehem's economy, prevented tourists and pilgrims from reaching the city, and left buildings in ruins.

The news came as the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen, met in Jerusalem to discuss progress in the peace process. While the two men were all smiles for the cameras, across Jerusalem at the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, there was tension.

The cause was the revelation that Israeli police have secretly been allowing Jewish visitors inside the temple complex, where they have not been allowed since Mr Sharon's controversial visit in 2000. The complex is the third holiest site in Islam, and is held by Jews to be the site of the Biblical Temple.

Mr Sharon's visit was the trigger for the intifada, which the US is now trying to bring to an end. It set off riots among Palestinians enraged at a visit whose symbolism was Israeli hegemony over the site.

Non-Muslims had been barred from the site by Israeli police for fear of violence or vandalism by Jewish extremists who want the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque that are currently on the site to be demolished so the Jewish Temple can be rebuilt.

But it has now emerged that for the past month police have been escorting Jewish groups on tours of the complex. In protest, the Muslim Waqf, which owns the complex, closed the mosques yesterday to prevent non-Muslim visitors entering them.

"The police have started allowing for non-Muslims to enter the mosque," Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the prayer leader of Al-Aqsa, said. "We reject it and consider it as an act of piracy. Our condition is very clear. The conditions are not appropriate for resuming the programme of visits for foreigners.

"The police are challenging the Waqf and this is part of the measures of the occupation. We informed the police that what they are doing is wrong. The police should respect the feelings of Muslims."

It has also emerged that Israeli police did not only escort visitors who asked to see the complex, but that one officer, Yossi Ben Haim, had approached people in the Old City and tried to persuade them to visit.

In their statements yesterday, Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen studiously avoided any of the contentious issues that lie ahead in talks and stuck to lofty rhetoric. "We are before a new opportunity for the possibility for a better future for both peoples. A future full of opportunities and hope, is today closer than in the past," Mr Sharon said. Abu Mazen said: "A just peace will bring a better future for everyone ... Our conflict with you is a political conflict and we will end it through political means."

There was a second shooting attack within two days in the West Bank yesterday. A Palestinian gunman who opened fire at an Israeli checkpoint was shot dead by Israeli soldiers. The incident came after the killing of a Bulgarian worker near Jenin. Responsibility for that shooting was claimed by the Jenin cell of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which said it carried out the attack to show it rejected the ceasefire agreed by militants and the ruling Fatah party.

The Al-Aqsa Brigades are linked with Fatah but rogue cells are operating in Jenin and Nablus.

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