Heavy clashes in Gaza and Tulkarm follow IDF withdrawal from Bethlehem

An Israeli soldier was killed in heavy gunfire exchanges in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday. Earlier, an armed Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops operating in the Tulkarm refugee camp. The fighting came hours after Israeli forces pulled out of Bethlehem and surrounding villages as part of the "Gaza and Bethlehem first" phased withdrawal plan finalized by Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The soldier, Sgt. Kivan Cohen, 19, from Petach Tikva, was serving at an army outpost near the Gush Katif settlement of Gadid, when he was shot in the head by a Palestinian sniper and died of his wounds as he was being transported to a hospital.

Intermittent gunfire exchanges between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen continued throughout the night near the Neve Dekalim industrial area. Two IAF Cobra helicopters were dispatched in the direction of Khan Yunis early Tuesday to seek out the gunmen.

Large contingents of Israeli troops entered Tulkarm and the nearby refugee camp overnight "in the framework of anti-terrorist operations," the army said. The camp "serves as a center of terrorist activity and launching base for Palestinian attacks against Israel," the army added. Soldiers conducted house-to-house searches in the camp and helicopters reportedly assisted the troops.

During the course of the operation, Palestinians opened fire on the Israeli soldiers. At least one armed Palestinian was killed and another sustained moderate wounds. Security forces discovered a small explosive device near the body of the dead Palestinian, ynet reported. Some 15 Palestinians suspected of involvement in terrorist activity were arrested in Tulkarm.

Early Tuesday, security forces discovered a cache of 25 pipe bombs in a building in the village of Al Yamun, near Jenin. The army detonated the bombs and arrested two Palestinians.

IDF withdraws from Bethlehem Israeli troops completed their withdrawal from Bethlehem, Beit Jala, el-Khader, Beit Sahour, and the Dehaishe refugee camp overnight as part of the agreement reached Sunday night by Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdel Razek Yehiye.

Security responsibilities in Bethlehem were handed over to Gen. Haj Ismail, the head of the Palestinian Police in the West Bank. The curfew in Bethlehem was lifted permanently on Monday and Palestinian policemen were seen patrolling near the Church of the Nativity on Tuesday morning.

"The Israeli Defense Forces have pulled out of Bethlehem and redeployed around the city," the army said in a statement. "The redeployment is aimed at enabling the Palestinians to act against terrorism and restore daily life." According to media reports, the army is retaining a tight closure on Bethlehem to prevent terrorists from leaving the city for nearby Jerusalem.

In the Gaza Strip, the army had not yet eased restrictions on the Palestinian population nor removed roadblocks in Palestinian-controlled areas. Maariv reported that the IDF is waiting for the Palestinians to begin acting against terror infrastructure in Gaza before implementing the measures agreed upon between the sides.

Ha'aretz reported, however, that Palestinian policemen set up roadblocks on roads leading to Israeli settlements and examined Palestinian drivers' papers and vehicles. Palestinian sources said the measures were taken to prevent the firing of mortars, the paper said.

Palestinian policemen arrived in Dir el-Balah late Monday night intending to arrest Hamas activists there, Yediot Aharonot reported. The Hamas members attacked the Palestinian police station, and it was unclear if there were any injuries in the incident.

Earlier Monday, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations rejected the "Gaza and Bethlehem first" agreement, charging that the Palestinian Authority had surrendered to Israeli dictates. "Our rifles will remain directed against the Zionist enemy," said senior Hamas official Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi.

Ellis Shuman Israelinsider

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Author`s name: Editorial Team