Israelis leaving Beit Jala, say Palestinians
BEIT JALA, West Bank (CNN) -- Israeli troops began withdrawing from the West Bank town of Beit Jala before dawn Thursday, according to Palestinian witnesses.
Tanks and armored vehicles rolled out of the town, the witnesses said, two days after they had entered the Palestinian-controlled town with the stated aim of stopping Palestinian gunmen from firing at the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Gilo across the valley.
The withdrawal came after the office of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reported that Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had struck "a deal in principle" on Wednesday for Arafat to stop the firing from Beit Jala in exchange for an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank town.
But a short time after that report a clash erupted between Palestinians and Israeli tanks and personnel carriers inside Beit Jala.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that after Peres and Arafat worked out the understanding, commanders in the field met to work out operational details.
If the area was quiet for a few hours and no shots were fired Gilo, Gissin said, the decision will be taken to withdraw Israeli troops.
The Associated Press reported firing ended about five hours before the withdrawal began.
Asked what the Palestinians had specifically agreed to in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal, Gissin said, "To stop firing on Jerusalem."
The Israel Defense Forces sent tanks and troops into Beit Jala Monday night in what Israeli officials said was a response to firing on Gilo from Beit Jala.
Gilo is built on land Israel occupied in 1967. Israelis consider it a southern neighborhood of Jerusalem; Palestinians consider it occupied West Bank territory.
Palestinian sources said Palestinian Authority forces would move into the area to ensure there would be no more firing.
Israel Radio reported earlier that Peres had spoken at least twice with Arafat about Palestinian firing at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo and the Israeli presence in parts of Beit Jala, just south of Gilo. The report said Sharon had approved of Peres' attempts to negotiate with Arafat.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was "greatly dismayed" by the recent escalation of violence in the region and urged Israel to withdraw its troops from all areas under Palestinian control.
In a written statement, Annan expressed concern Wednesday that the continuing Israeli incursion into Beit Jala and the recent killing of Palestinian leader Mustafa Zibri would only serve to "further inflame the passions in the region and complicate the search for a way out of the present crisis."
Annan called on all sides to exercise restraint in order to "stop the cycle of destructive violence."
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