Israel Withdraws Troops From PA Town

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli forces pulled out of the Palestinian Authority-ruled town of Beit Jala south of here before dawn Thursday, following an agreement arranged with U.S. and European help.

The troops had taken up positions in Beit Jala two days earlier in response to heavy firing by Palestinian gunmen on the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. The fighting continued into the night on Wednesday despite reports an understanding had been reached.

Israel came under heavy international condemnation for moving tanks into the area but said it would stay until shooting and mortar attacks on its capital came to an end.

Overnight, however, Israeli ministers met to discuss the situation and decided to withdraw the forces. They are to remain in Israeli-controlled areas nearby, ready to move in again if shooting attacks resume.

Following the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon contacted Secretary of State Colin Powell and informed him of the Israeli decision to leave Beit Jala, Sharon advisor Raanan Gissin said by phone Thursday.

Washington played an "important role" in obtaining an agreement, Gissin added. It was both U.S. pressure and Israel's presence in Beit Jala that had convinced Arafat to call on the gunmen to stop firing at the Israelis, he said.

"Once he got the double message on the ground and from the U.S. he complied [with previous ceasefire agreements]."

Sharon asked Powell to pass on a "stern warning" to Arafat to abide by the understanding, Gissin said.

The fact the shooting stopped on Arafat's orders proved that he was able to call for a ceasefire when he wanted one and that he had the capacity to control the security situation.

Washington welcomed the developments. In an earlier phone conversation, Powell told Arafat that the U.S. had been "pressing for Israeli withdrawal from [Beit Jala]," State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said prior to the pullback.

Powell had also urged him to do "everything he can to stop the violence and tone down the rhetoric as we move forward," Boucher added.

PA Minister Saeb Erekat said he hoped that the Beit Jala agreement would take hold and lead to a "comprehensive approach" to the implementation of the Mitchell committee recommendations.

The Mitchell plan, drawn up by a team headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, is meant to bring about a halt to the violence which erupted when the Palestinians launched an uprising last September, and set up conditions to bring two sides back to the negotiating table.

According to Erekat, European envoys had also helped broker the Beit Jala understanding.

Model for other areas

PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said a meeting between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres would be more likely to happen if the cease-fire holds. The ceasefire could be expanded into other areas, he said.

Arafat agreed last week to meet with Peres, but no time or place was set. Sharon gave his consent to the meeting to negotiate a ceasefire only, but not to enter into talks on political topics.

Sharon has maintained that his government will not negotiate as long as the violent campaign continues.

Foreign Ministry officials said last week they believed that a Peres-Arafat meeting, if properly prepared, could succeed where numerous other attempts have failed in the last 11 months.

Ministry official Nimrod Barkan told reporters on Wednesday that Israel hoped the limited ceasefire agreement could act as a model for other areas.

Prior to the Israeli withdrawal, Peres said that the "true test" of the localized ceasfire would be in its\lang9 implementation.

Since the start of the uprising, several ceasefire understandings have been reached, most recently in June, when a deal was mediated by CIA chief George Tenet. None of them have taken hold.