Palestinian police in new haircuts pulled out their dark blue uniforms yesterday and prepared to move back into the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the second area Israel is turning over under a US-backed Mideast peace plan.
The handover of the ancient town, expected yesterday afternoon according to officials on both sides, comes after an upbeat summit between the Israeli and Palestinian premiers boosted hope for an end to 33 months of bloodshed.
Army transport trucks started carrying away armored vehicles and containers full of equipment from two Israeli bases near Bethlehem on Tuesday, and Palestinian security forces were poised to move into the town as soon as the last soldiers left.
At a barracks near a derelict helipad, laughing and joking police tried on their uniforms. Nearby, a special forces officer barked orders at recruits in green camouflage and bright red berets as they practiced marching in a courtyard.
"Today, we're restoring our leadership in one city in this land," their commander, Hani Deek, said. "I hope the rest will soon follow."
However, as long as Bethlehem remains hedged in by Israeli checkpoints, residents don't expect the handover to change much.
"They are making fools out of us," said Jaudat Joude, who has been unable to reach his job at a Jerusalem welding factory since the uprising began almost three years ago. "If you want to make some serious changes, open the roads, remove the checkpoints and let people in to work. Then maybe we can believe that the Israelis have good intentions."
Israeli forces have occupied Bethlehem several times during the conflict, once holding the Church of the Nativity under siege for a month, demanding the surrender of Palestinian gunmen who had fled inside the shrine marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
After a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus on Nov. 21, carried out by a Palestinian from Bethlehem, soldiers went back in and stayed.
Senior commanders met Tuesday and finalized details of the handover. In a statement, the military said Israel would be in charge of security of Israelis, including settlers in nearby villages. Palestinian security forces, meanwhile, "have committed to preventing and thwarting terrorist attacks in the areas under their responsibility."
A similar formula held in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops pulled out late Sunday.
Speaking in front of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office before their Tuesday summit, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas said the turnover of Gaza and Bethlehem would be "followed by pullbacks from the rest of the cities and towns and Palestinian refugee camps."
It was the first time the two leaders spoke before reporters and cameras at a Jerusalem summit, their third in six weeks.
Palestinian and Israeli Cabinet ministers, some of them enemies until recently, sat at a table next to the two lecterns, chatting easily and smiling, establishing a relaxed setting for conciliatory language not heard in this region during three years of bloodshed.
"Even if we are required to make painful compromises, I will be willing to make them for the sake of true peace -- a peace for generations, the peace that we all yearn for," Sharon said.