Israel withdraws troops

MANAMA (BAHRAIN), AUG. 30. The Israeli defence forces withdrew from the Palestinian town of Beit Jala early this morning with both the Israel Government and the Palestinian Authority claiming that it had set the terms for the withdrawal.

Ironically, these conflicting claims are not altogether a negative sign in the current phase of utter turmoil since it could show that both sides are looking for the ladder by which they can climb down from their hardline positions. Indeed, from the manner in which the withdrawal was achieved the Western diplomats, who pooled their efforts to bring this about, are even beginning to sound optimistic about the chances of a more comprehensive cease-fire.

The Israeli tanks and paratroopers who had moved into Beit Jala two nights ago moved out after a series of conversations over the telephone between Israel's Foreign Minister, Mr. Shimon Peres, and the Palestinian Authority President, Mr. Yasser Arafat. (The Israeli media has reported that Mr. Peres called Mr. Arafat over 10 times). Senior U.S. and European officials are also reported to have talked to both sides repeatedly. Although Palestinian gunmen continued to fire at the Israeli troops in Beit Jala till late in the evening, the fighting did stop at some time and the Israelis withdrew in the early morning.

Israel says the withdrawal took place after Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat reached an unwritten understanding that the withdrawal would take place if the Palestinians agreed to stop firing bullets and mortar shells at the Gilo enclave. In the Israeli version, the Palestinians are said to have given this understanding. As usual, the picture painted by the Palestinian side is more confusing and contradictory. While some Palestinian officials have admitted that the withdrawal took place on the basis of an unwritten agreement, other officials said it was the diplomatic pressure combined with the fighting spirit displayed by the Palestinian gunmen that forced Israel to withdraw.

This second point of view might be self-serving but even if it is so, it is harmless. Such statements can enable the Palestinians to claim that they have finally succeeded in obtaining the international support for which they have been fighting for throughout the uprising. There are other facts that can also bolster the Palestinian claim.

According reports, officials of the Palestinian Authority did set up road blocks outside Beit Jala to prevent their gunmen from entering the town and fighting with the Israelis.