Mood Somber, As Israel Hands Over Bethlehem Security To PA

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Bethlehem ( - Residents of Bethlehem were pleased that the Israeli army was turning security control over to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday as part of an arrangement to promote progress on the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace.

But they were quick to point out that probably very little would change in their lives in the near future, and the general mood in the town where Jesus was born was not very cheerful.

The Israeli army packed up equipment and was already trucking it out of Bethlehem late on Tuesday in anticipation of the handover of security control to the PA, which took place at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, eight months after Israeli troops entered the city.

"As part of the ongoing dialogue with security officials in the Palestinian Authority, IDF [Israeli army] forces have handed over, today at 4:00 p.m., the security responsibility of the city of Bethlehem and areas...near the city, to the Palestinian Authority," the army said in a statement.

Neither Israeli soldiers nor Palestinian policemen could be seen on the streets of Bethlehem prior to the transfer on Wednesday. People were out on the streets and some shops were open, but reaction to the transfer of authority was mixed.

"It's a pleasure that we have the Israelis moving out and the Palestinian police moving in, and they [will] try to put back the place into order and this is the good part... The other part, which is still bad, they will not withdraw from Bethlehem. Bethlehem is still under closure," said Michel Nasser, director of the Peace Center, which is a community center on Manger Square in central Bethlehem.

Israeli troops still remained on the outskirts of the city and they control the area surrounding the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel. Residents of Bethlehem as well as other Palestinian cities are still not allowed to travel throughout the West Bank or into Israel.

"It's a little bit different in terms of people are more out and you can see they're a little bit freer, but practically it's still the same, the closures are there," said Nasser, 52, who is a Christian born and raised in Bethlehem.

At the Peace Center, some 100 children were attending their first day of summer camp.

"Last year when we had that summer camp, we had a problem. The kids were really afraid [of] the tanks being on the square. This year there's no tanks; there's a lot of cars, it's a really happy event for the children," he said.

Nasser said he was hopeful that peace would prevail at least for the time being and said he expected the PA to be tougher on terrorists and corruption than it was previously.

"Of course the Palestinian Authority are more strict and more adamant to enforce the peace and not to have this corruption that was before," Nasser said.

"The terrorists in Bethlehem and the terrorists in the United States will always remain...but that does not mean we cannot run our lives and we cannot continue with our lives....

"Of course, there's going to be only one law here in this land and whoever does not follow or abide by the law has to pay for it, regardless of whether they're terrorists or they're criminals," Nasser said.

PA Prime Minister Abbas has pledged to end terrorism and restore calm in order to promote diplomatic progress with Israel. He has also promised to consolidate security forces under one authority.

Israeli military sources said that in talks with Palestinian representatives over the handover of security in Bethlehem, the Palestinians had committed themselves to preventing and thwarting terrorist attacks in the areas under their responsibility.

Israel is expecting the PA to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating into nearby Jerusalem and other areas.

The turnover of Bethlehem came just four days after Israel pulled its troops out of the northern Gaza Strip, leaving an area from which Palestinian militants fired rockets and mortars at Israel under PA control.

Not everyone in Bethlehem was optimistic.

"We have no feeling until we see what is going to be," said Angela, whose family owns a tourist shop and two factories for making olive wood and mother of pearl souvenirs. "Wait and see and then we can say, but we are still happy that they're talking and maybe it could be true."

Since Christmas, Angela said, business has gotten worse. The family took a large loan in order to keep going these last three years and to avoid firing all their workers. Even if they have five good years in a row, it will be hard to come back financially.

She argued that there is no such thing as Palestinian terrorists, only a war.

"There are no terrorists; it's not terrorists. People are talking for their land, liberty; we are under occupation. If we have peace there will be no terrorists," she said.

Mohammed Salahad, 45, a father of eight, is a moneychanger in Bethlehem. He said people are tired of the financial and other pressures and they are ready to stop terrorism and move on to negotiations as a means to solve the problems.

"Most of all people here are not feeling good...because [of the] pressure," Salahad said. "[For] more than two years we are [living] under the pressure, occupation pressure, economic's so difficult for us as a people...

"You know it is difficult. Our leader [PA Chairman Yasser Arafat] is in jail in Ramallah," he said, in reference to Israel's 19-month travel ban on Arafat.

"Arafat is the greatest leader of the Palestinian people," he said. But the people also trust Abbas, he added.

"The people here, they [will] cooperate with the [Abbas] administration's coming because really we [are] reaching [a] point [to] stop all kinds of terrorism. Really we call it terrorism because now [the] policy is negotiation," Salahad said.

Israeli leaders and the Israeli public is skeptical that Abbas can fulfill his pledges to stop terrorism. Israel has criticized a three-month ceasefire between Abbas and three main militant groups, saying it will only give terrorists a time to regroup and rearm.

Nevertheless, Abbas was one of the few Palestinian leaders to openly declare that the violent uprising and use of weapons was a mistake for the Palestinians.

"The intifadah is the blackest [thing] of our lives, really. The intifadah [took] us back more than 50 years. Before the intifadah we [lived] very, very, very good - money, economy, policy, security - but after the intifadah - but this is not intifadah [a popular uprising] really - all the kind of life are very, very bad," Salahad said.

According to Salahad, business is at most only 30 percent of what it was before the intifadah. Most of Bethlehem depended on the tourist trade both from abroad and from Israelis, who visited frequently. Now there is almost nothing.

The "road map" is not an Israeli or Palestinian plan, he said, it is only an American plan and they are pressuring the two sides to accept it. But maybe the Palestinians have reached a point of enough suffering where they will reach an agreement, he added.

Oddly enough, Salahad said Palestinians also trust Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Most of our people...they trust Sharon...because he's the strongest leader," he said. Therefore, he is able to make peace as the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin did with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he added.

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