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Israel begins Bethlehem pull-back

Soldier's car
An Israeli soldier died in the bullet-ridden car  

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Israeli forces began Sunday to withdraw from the Palestinian territories of Beit Jala and Bethlehem, Israeli military sources said.

The pullout began shortly after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to remove Israeli forces from the two West Bank towns, provided the Palestinians adhered to their end of an agreement reached last week.

In a security meeting in the Israeli capital, Sharon authorized Israel's defense ministry to prepare to extract Israel Defense Forces from the two areas, the prime minister's office said.

Continued violence Sunday in Israel threatened to sideline the withdrawal, which was originally scheduled for Saturday but was suspended in the wake of an outbreak of shooting Saturday in Bethlehem.

Five Israelis died in separate gun attacks as Israeli forces were poised to begin the pullout.

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Four civilians were shot dead and 28 wounded, one seriously, when gunmen opened fire from a car in Hadera, northern Israel.

The two gunmen, Palestinian militants, were shot and killed by a plainclothes police officer who rushed to the scene after the incident, police said.

In another drive-by shooting an Israeli soldier was killed as he sat in his car near the northern West Bank town of Baka al Garbia.

In Hadera, gunmen fired indiscriminately at pedestrians as their car sped down the town's main street before they were killed by the plainclothes detective.

An eyewitness told Israel Army Radio she could see the body of one of the gunmen lying on Hadera's President Street in a pool of blood, with an automatic rifle beside him.

Kessel said that a video has been released to the Associated Press news agency in which two men, apparently from Islamic Jihad confess to the shootings they are about to carry out.

Hadera, between Tel Aviv and Haifa, is at one of Israel's narrowest points, just a few miles from the West Bank. In the past it has been a frequent target for attacks by Palestinian militants.

The shooting of the soldier came around 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) inside Israeli territory near Baka al Garbia.

A Palestinian group linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility for that shooting, saying it was in retaliation for the killing of one of its members in recent West Bank clashes.

Israeli officials said there had been no shootings on Sunday however in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, and Beit Jala, an Arab town near the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Before the Hadera shootout Israeli officials had said if Bethlehem and Beit Jala remained quiet, Israeli forces would begin withdrawing Sunday night.

Beit Jala patrol
Israeli forces patrol Beit Jala on Saturday night -- they had been due to pull out  

Officials linked to Sharon said he was determined to go ahead since the violence in Bethlehem and Beit Jala had stopped.

After phase one of the withdrawal, Israel had said it would draw up a timetable for withdrawal from four other West Bank towns that are being occupied.

Israeli troops moved into or around the six areas following the assassination on October 17 of right-wing Cabinet minister Rehaven Ze'evi.

Israel said its military action was necessary because it did not feel the Palestinian Authority was doing enough to round up Ze'evi's killer or killers.

Israel postponed its planned withdrawal from Bethlehem and Beit Jala on Saturday night after heavy clashes flared in the area just hours before the pullout was due to begin.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said one Palestinian died when he was shot in the head in Tulkarem, also in the West Bank.

Arafat said cancellation of the pullback showed an "absence of the will for peace" among the Israelis.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Israel's decision was "unfortunate."

"Once again, we have had an agreement and the Israeli side is violating it. The real problem, I think, is that the Israeli prime minister does not want us ever to go back to negotiations."

On Saturday night a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said there would be no pull-back "as long as the Palestinian Authority does not abide by the agreement it made Friday to stop shooting."


• Israeli Government
• Palestine Red Crescent Society
• Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
• Palestinian Authority
• Israel Defense Forces
• United Nations

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