Israel Army Withdraws From Nablus
NABLUS, West Bank (AP) _ Thousands of Palestinians, some in pajamas, streamed into the streets late Monday night, shooting firecrackers and burning an Israeli flag as Israeli troops ended 28 years of occupation by withdrawing from Nablus a day ahead of schedule.
``They are gone! They are gone!″ residents chanted outside Israel’s former military headquarters in the West Bank’s largest city. They let out a roar of approval and fired gunshots into the air as a flag ripped from the balcony was set aflame.
``Nothing tastes as good as freedom,″ marveled Raed Arman, a 26-year-old city hall worker clad in nightclothes. ``We were outsiders in our own country. Now we can walk freely. There will be no one to stop us in the street and ask for ID cards.″
The withdrawal, which was expected to begin late Tuesday or early Wednesday, caught the city by surprise. It apparently was moved up to prevent opponents of the peace process, Israeli or Palestinian, from organizing protests.
It began with little fanfare around 9:30 p.m. as troops evacuated first the downtown police station and then the military government headquarters in this city of 200,000 some 30 miles north of Jerusalem.
As word spread, jubilant Palestinians took to the streets. Some hastily strung white, black, red and green Palestinian flags over the main roads.
At the Nablus prison, which the Israelis cleared of inmates several days ago, mothers with children joined hundreds of other Palestinians exploring cells many had known during the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising.
Fahmi Aashash, a 40-year-old doctor, said he felt ``as though in a dream.″
``We used to look at this place from the outside, and it looked like a chamber of horrors,″ he said. ``Now it’s under our control.″
``The story ends here. There is peace now,″ said Kamel Hamadi, 28, who was jailed in the prison for three years.
Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli military government, said Nablus was one of the ``most problematic″ towns in the West Bank, with an especially large proportion of opponents of PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
A top PLO official in the city, Issa Khodour, said the pullout was not coordinated with the Palestinians.
``We did not expect them to be leaving tonight,″ he said. ``They were afraid of some activities against them. But we are not worried for our own security. ... On the contrary _ people are happy here.″
A Palestinian security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 250 PLO officers were expected in Nablus on Monday night and 1,200 would be in place Tuesday.
It was not clear exactly how many were already in the city, but PLO officials said they were in control.
Israel TV showed footage of Palestinian troops clearing the path for a group of Israelis departing one building. ``It is our duty to protect them as they leave,″ said Palestinian Gen. Sadi Naji.
Gen. Gabi Ofir, head of Israel’s military government, complained that Palestinians were only ``partially observing″ the agreements. In particular, he told army radio, uniformed Palestinians in some West Bank areas are deploying ahead of schedule.
The relatively smooth pullout calmed fears raised by a series of clashes between soldiers and residents in recent weeks in Nablus. Last Friday, a Palestinian man was shot and killed there by Israeli troops.
The army had banned Israelis from Nablus as of Sunday to avoid attacks on them during the delicate transition. Israel’s previous withdrawals from the West Bank towns of Jenin and Tulkarem were carried out relatively smoothly.
As part of the power transfer in the West Bank, Israeli troops are to pull out of three more cities _ Nablus, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah _ by the end of December, ahead of Palestinian general elections set for Jan. 20. Most of Hebron, where 450 Jewish settlers live amid 120,000 Arabs, will be handed to the Palestinians by March.
Many Palestinians remain unhappy with the autonomy arrangement, and demand full statehood.
Before the withdrawal from Nablus, Israeli police arrested 53 Jewish settlers Monday when they tried to force their way into a religious site in Nablus, police spokesman Boaz Goldberg said.
The settlers confronted soldiers outside Joseph’s Tomb, the traditional burial site of the biblical figure Joseph.
Also Monday, 15 Palestinian police officers arrived in Ramallah to open the Israel-PLO liaison office there. Ramallah is supposed to be turned over to Palestinian control by Dec. 29.
In Hebron, shots were fired, apparently by Arabs, at the Jewish settler enclave of Beit Hadassah. No one was hurt, but dozens of Jewish settlers took to the streets to protest.