OPT: New violence after Israel hands over Bethlehem
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Two Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed Tuesday after Israeli forces pulled out of Bethlehem, underlining the fragility of a deal seen as a test case for a lasting cease-fire.
The agreement, sealed by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators Sunday, called for Israel to ease its military clampdown in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip in return for a reduction in "terror and violence."
But in a sign of the obstacles that remain, the militant Islamic group Hamas, which rejected the deal and vowed to continue its attacks on Israel, shot dead a soldier guarding a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.
"I turn to the heads of the Palestinians and say that if you don't deal with this, we will," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on Israel Radio.
Israeli troops killed a 15-year-old youth in the same area, and soldiers raiding a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Tulkarm shot dead a man the army said was armed with explosives and fired at them.
The violence raised questions about whether the new deal, praised by Washington and seen as a pilot for further moves toward a full cease-fire, would meet the same fate as earlier failed efforts to staunch 22 months of bloodshed.
The killings occurred shortly after Israeli forces turned over security control of Bethlehem to the Palestinians. It was one of seven Palestinian-ruled cities seized by Israel in June following a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings.
REIN IN MILITANTS
Mark Sofer, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said Palestinian security forces would be expected to make a serious effort at reining in militants behind attacks on Israelis.
"We do understand that the Palestinians will not be able to do this in a quick fix, a magic solution, one minute," he told Reuters. "The first steps were taken yesterday and the operative word now would be, quite simply, control."
Sofer said Bethlehem would be a test case, and if Palestinians proved able to curb attacks, army patrols were likely to pull out of other West Bank cities they have reoccupied in recent months.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior aide to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, called the deal "the real test of Israel's commitment to the peace process."
The Gaza Strip was the next place where Israel was due to begin easing restrictions, but because of militants' strength there only limited pullbacks were expected from areas near Palestinian towns and Jewish settlements.
The military wing of Hamas said in a statement one of its snipers opened fire from the Khan Younis refugee camp, killing a soldier in retaliation for the shooting of one of its members.
"The security which the Zionists hoped for will not be achieved through the 'Gaza-first' plan," the statement said, referring to the agreement to ease the clampdown there.
The army said the soldier was hit when shots were fired toward the outpost west of Khan Younis.
Witnesses and hospital officials in Khan Younis said Ayman Zua'rub, 15, was shot dead by troops guarding the settlement of Morag to the south. The army had no immediate comment.
Several hours earlier, 50 tanks and armored vehicles rumbled through Tulkarm to the city's refugee camp.
Israeli military sources said the operation was mounted because of warnings that militants in the camp were planning an attack. They said an armed Palestinian was killed in a shootout.
At least 1,505 Palestinians and 589 Israelis have been killed since a Palestinian uprising for independence began in September 2000 after peace talks stalled.
Israeli soldiers, while no longer patrolling Bethlehem, continued to encircle the city revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.
"If Palestinians show a readiness to fight terrorism we will ease conditions more," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said.
After Israeli forces withdrew, residents who had been confined to their homes at night for weeks under curfew were free to walk the streets. Police who had stayed out of sight during the Israeli offensive began patrolling.
Washington hailed the Gaza-Bethlehem accord. "We've always underscored the critical importance of direct discussions between the parties, and reports of progress on security issues are encouraging," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.
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