Tue, Jul 01, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Gaza Strip sees progress as checkpoints come down

AP , GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP

A Palestinian woman sits in front of her family's home which was damaged by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun yesterday. Israeli forces pulled out of northern Gaza on Sunday after militant groups announced a cessation of attacks.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Israeli and Palestinian commanders shook hands yesterday, bulldozers dismantled checkpoints and Palestinian traffic flowed freely in the Gaza Strip -- the most significant sign of disengagement after 33 months of bloody fighting.

The Israeli pullback, part of a US-backed peace plan, came on the same day as pledges by Palestinian militias to suspend attacks on Israelis for three months.

Both sides remained deeply skeptical that the ceasefire will take hold, having been disappointed so many times before, and a dispute loomed over Israel's demand that the Palestinian Authority dismantle the militant groups altogether. But there was also a first glimmer of optimism.

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, which had seen most of its farmland razed by Israeli bulldozers, troops withdrew yesterday.

"You were late," Mohammed Shabat, 65, pointing to the destruction, told Palestinian policemen who took over the Israeli positions. "But, God willing, we will bring this town back to the old days."

The two largest Israeli dailies, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv, framed their front-pages in blue, a color normally reserved for editions on Jewish holidays. "Cease-fire," read a banner headline in the Maariv daily, above a photo of two soldiers hugging in Gaza. Yediot had soldiers posing on a tank with an Israeli flag.

The withdrawal scenes were reminiscent of the mid-1990s, when Israeli troops pulled out of Palestinian population centers as part of interim peace deals. Since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, Israel has reoccupied most of those areas.

"It's all going back to the starting line," commentator Hemi Shalev wrote in Maariv.

Two new ingredients raised hope: Israelis and Palestinians, exhausted by the carnage, are grateful for the break in fighting, and the US is intensively engaged in supervising implementation of the so-called "road map" to Mideast peace and Palestinian statehood by 2005.

Over the weekend, US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the weekend on how to move forward.

Washington's initiative got a big boost during Rice's presence -- Israelis and Palestinians concluded a security deal for Gaza, and the three major Palestinian factions -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah -- announced an immediate suspension of attacks.

The two Islamic militant groups agreed to lay down arms for three months, while Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah said its affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade would halt attacks for six months.

In the next step, Israel is to withdraw from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, and security officials from both sides met yesterday to negotiate the details.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said he expects Israel to withdraw from all West Bank towns within six weeks.

"Things are promising and we must seize this moment," he said.

The first test of the truce may be Beit Hanoun, a town in the northeast corner of Gaza. Israeli troops have moved in and out so many times that their invasions have become routine, as they tried to stop Palestinian militants from firing homemade rockets over the fence at the Israeli town of Sderot, less than 2km away.

Palestinian police arrived in a convoy of blue cruisers yesterday morning, but were forced to stop at the outskirts of Beit Hanoun. Israeli troops had destroyed the main roads, including three overpasses, effectively cutting off the town from the rest of Gaza.

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