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Sources: Al Aqsa leader killed by Israeli troops

Bethlehem bells ring in security handover

Palestinian police officers patrol the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Wednesday.
Palestinian police officers patrol the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Wednesday.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- A local head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank was killed in an exchange of gunfire with Israeli forces early Thursday, Palestinian medical sources said.

Mahmoud Ahmad Shawar, 31, was the head of the militant group in Qalqilya, the sources said. He was shot in the head, they said.

Another Palestinian man was wounded in the exchange of fire and arrested by the Israeli forces, the Palestinian medical sources said.

According to an Israeli military source, Israeli forces were attempting to arrest wanted men in Qalqilya when they wounded and arrested a top wanted Palestinian man from the Al Aqsa group and killed his assistant.

The Israeli forces were trying to arrest the wanted man at his home, but he and his assistant tried to escape, the Israeli source said. The Israelis shot in the air, but when the men did not stop, the Israeli forces shot at the men, killing one and wounding the other, the source said.

Wednesday night, three Israeli settlers were lightly wounded by four rockets fired from within Gaza into Kfar Darom, a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Hours earlier, church bells rang in celebration Wednesday as Israel handed security control of the West Bank city of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority, a step on the "road map" to peace in the Middle East.

Uniformed Palestinian police began patrolling Manger Square in the center of Bethlehem, the scene of a standoff last year between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers, shortly after 4 p.m. (9 a.m. EDT).

The Israeli withdrawal followed a pullback by Israel from northern Gaza, opening Gaza's major north-south highway. Numerous checkpoints along the route also were dismantled.

Palestinian militant groups agreed Sunday to a temporary cease-fire, paving the way for the initial handover of security in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Bethlehem residents said they were happy the Israelis were leaving. Others said they doubt the Israeli soldiers would be gone for long.

Mayor Hanna Nasir said people were looking forward to not living in fear. He also voiced hope that tourists, who have abandoned the city, would return.

An Israeli military officer expressed optimism that the Palestinian intifada, which began in September 2000 and has resulted in scores of deaths on both sides, may be coming to an end.

He said Israel had passed on intelligence about militants planning attacks to Palestinian security officials and that arrests had been made in some cases.

Under the Bethlehem deal -- worked out by Israeli Brig. Gen. Gadi Eisencott and Gen. Haj Ismail, commander of the Palestinian Authority's National Security Service in the West Bank -- Israel will maintain a checkpoint on the main road into the city and will continue to guard Israeli settlers in the area.

Over the past two months, Israeli forces have withdrawn from the city's center to a ring of positions on the outskirts.

The road map, drafted by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, calls for a Palestinian state by 2005. Incremental steps include Palestinians clamping down on terror groups and Israel dismantling illegal settlement outposts built since March 2001.

Israel would consider any request from Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to move from the West Bank to Gaza, Israeli officials said Tuesday, with one official adding, "It would most likely be a one-way trip."

Israeli troops have isolated Arafat for months at his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

A lifting of the siege and free movement for Arafat were among the demands by the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Arafat's Fatah movement when they declared a cease-fire against Israeli targets.

Israel made a similar suggestion in April 2002 when Arafat's compound was under siege after a wave of terror attacks that began during Passover.

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