West Bank fighting halts Israeli pullout

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The Independent Online

Heavy fighting broke out in the West Bank town of Bethlehem yesterday, jeopardising a planned pullout by the Israeli army.

Israeli and Palestinian commanders met in Bethlehem to discuss Israel's plan to withdraw from the West Bank town along with nearby Beit Jala later in the day. Bowing to international pressure, Israel agreed to the pullout as a test case for other withdrawals from West Bank towns it invaded in search of Palestinian militants following the assassination of the tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi on 17 October.

While the meeting was still going on, however, Israeli tanks sent Palestinians running for cover after gunmen attacked a building they claimed was used by Israeli undercover forces.

Israel had said its withdrawal from the two towns would depend on "complete quiet" in the areas they occupied last week. Raanan Gissin, an adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, said fighting at the Bethlehem-Beit Jala crossroads and elsewhere in the West Bank could mean postponing the withdrawal.

"It is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority to take control," said Mr Gissin. "If there will be continuous fire and they do not put it under control, it may postpone any movement of troops. We will have to wait until the evening hours to assess the situation and then make a decision." Further meetings were due to discuss the arrest of militants, which according to the Israeli Defence Ministry remained "a source of dissension".

Speaking at the opening of an art gallery in Gaza City yesterday, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he would see if the Israelis kept their part of the agreement. "It wouldn't be the first time they neglect to fulfil an agreement," he said.

Israel launched incursions into six Palestinian-controlled towns to hunt down and arrest the militants who killed the ultra-nationalist Mr Zeevi. The radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said it carried out the assassination in retaliation for the killing of its political leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, in August.

So far the incursions have left 37 Palestinians dead, angered the Bush administration, which is worried that further unrest will undermine support among Arab nations for its anti-terrorism campaign, and failed to capture Mr Zeevi's killers.

The offer to leave Bethlehem and Beit Jala was first made during a meeting on Friday in Tel Aviv of Israeli and Palestinian security commanders and an American official. "It was decided that the [Israeli defence] forces would withdraw from Bethlehem and Beit Jala on Saturday night," the Israeli Defence Ministry said. "The Palestinian Authority will take upon itself the responsibility to retain the quiet in the area."

Ahmed Eid, a Palestinian security official in Bethlehem who was at the meeting, said the Israelis did not give an exact time for the withdrawal, but had promised to ease restrictions on the movement of Bethlehem area residents.

US President George Bush was pleased with the first step of the partial withdrawal and urged Israel to complete it, the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said in Washington. Mr Bush also called on Mr Arafat to "make a 100 per cent effort to reduce the violence".

The Palestinian leadership issued a statement late on Friday urging all Palestinian factions to respect the ceasefire and calling on international observers to monitor the truce and check that Israel withdrew as promised. It also asked for an international committee to investigate the killing of five Palestinian policemen on Wednesday on the West Bank village of Beit Rima.

Israeli officials had said Israel would not withdraw from the West Bank towns until Mr Arafat arrested and handed over the militants responsible for Mr Zeevi's death.