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Some Israeli Reservists Return Home

May 12, 2002

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli reserve soldiers began returning home Sunday as the army postponed a planned incursion into the Gaza Strip and worshippers returned to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity for the first services since the end of a five-week siege of the church.

The Israeli army withdrew the last of its soldiers from Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank this weekend, after dozens of Palestinians gunmen, who had sought refuge in the church, agreed to leave for Gaza and Cyprus.

When asked about the postponement of an Israeli incursion into Gaza, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel was ``willing to give a chance (to peace negotiations) and wait.″

``We are ready to give any chance to the peace process,″ Ben-Eliezer told CNN’s ‘Late Edition.’ But he emphasized that Israel would not hesitate to respond in the wake of renewed attacks or violence.

``What we are going to do ... what will be the size of the operation, this will depend on the other side,″ he said.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian shot his Israeli employer in the head Sunday just outside of the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam, Maj. Assaf Librati, the local Israeli military commander, said. The attacker was caught shortly after with a pistol in his possession, and military sources said the army suspects the killing was politically motivated.

At the church in Bethlehem, the smell of incense filled the air as different Christian denominations held Sunday prayer services.

``We are happy to be here, to attend the services after a long absence,″ said Alberta Katan, 65, as she lighted candles near the grotto believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus. ``When I entered, I felt the joy in the eyes of the people praying again in the basilica.″

Christians, mostly local residents, sang hymns at the special service. Some worshippers looked over the outside walls of the church at bullet holes as they entered the 4th-century church.

Another service was held Sunday led by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a Vatican envoy who had been involved in negotiations to end the standoff.

``We have to bring peace to Jesus’ land by dialogue and justice and not by violence,″ he told the congregation.

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II described his great relief over the end of the siege and the resumption of religious services and urged mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians.

``Bethlehem’s universal message is love, justice, reconciliation and peace,″ the pontiff said. ``And it is on these bases that one can construct a future respectful of the rights of the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples, in mutual trust.″

After the siege ended Friday, American and Israeli bomb disposal experts defused about 40 explosive devices left behind by the militants, and then priests and volunteers cleaned away the refuse. Short on food and water, the 200 gunmen and clergy holed up in the church left it dirty and smelly but with little actual damage.

Two groups of suspected Palestinian gunmen, the focus of the standoff, were staying at hotels in Gaza and Cyprus after being transported away from Bethlehem. The ones in Cyprus were to move on to European countries, though the European Union was still making arrangements among its reluctant members to take in the 13 Palestinians described by Israel as senior terrorists.

In Gaza, 26 Palestinians from the church were feted at a top Gaza hotel, guests of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The 39 were among 200 people who fled into the ancient shrine on April 2 ahead of invading Israeli forces. Solution of the crisis led to an Israeli pullout from Bethlehem late Friday. On Saturday, Israeli forces left the town of Tulkarem after a brief incursion. That left Palestinian areas free of Israeli forces for the first time since March 29, when Israel launched its largest military push into the West Bank in more than three decades, a response to a series of Palestinian suicide bomb attacks.

Despite the end of the Bethlehem standoff, Israeli tanks and troops were still massed near the border with the Gaza Strip.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an Israeli offensive into Gaza, retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bombing Tuesday that killed 15 Israelis, had been postponed.

The military official said that Israel has begun to send home some of the reserve soldiers called up for the operation, but gave no figures.

Some reserves who were sent home were asked to be on standby in case they needed to be called up again, Israel Radio reported.

David Magen, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that Israel postponed moving into Gaza to give Arab states the opportunity to pressure the Palestinian Authority to stop attacks against Israel.

``I think the cancellation (of the operation) was made due to diplomatic considerations,″ Magen said. ``I hope that there will be positive momentum.″

There were also other reasons for calling off the invasion.

The Israeli military official said Ben-Eliezer called off the incursion because too many details had leaked out. Israel Radio reported that most of the suspected militants targeted by Israel had fled underground and Palestinians had booby-trapped towns and refugee camps.

Israeli media said the assault was put off because of U.S. pressure. The pause in military action appeared to provide an opening for diplomacy, and the Bush administration announced earlier that it would send CIA Director George Tenet to the region, but no date was set.

Tenet negotiated terms of a cease-fire last May, but the truce was never implemented.

In downtown Tel Aviv, about 50,000 Israelis rallied Saturday night in favor of an Israeli pullout from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, criticizing their government’s policy of maintaining Israel’s hold on the territories. ``Leave the territories for Israel’s sake,″ read banners setting the theme for the biggest peace rally since Palestinian-Israeli violence erupted nearly 20 months ago.

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