Church bells rang, special prayers were said, and crowds welcomed Palestinian security forces into Bethlehem yesterday following the departure of the Israeli army. Armed police in blue uniforms have now taken up positions at road junctions in the town. Travel in and out of Bethlehem is continuing to be restricted by Israeli soldiers, but there is now a degree of freedom on the streets of Bethlehem for the first time in 33 months. The pullout followed Tuesday's talks between Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. America has also pledged a $30m aid package to the Palestinian Authority to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed during Israeli incursions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Mayor of Bethlehem told the BBC last night: "The withdrawal is just ceremonial, nothing is changed in the city except for soldiers in uniform; Bethlehem is still in Israeli control." But he said he felt more hopeful about the long term prospects for peace. He said: "As long as there is international interest and there never has been so strong a commitment from the world to make the roadmap succeed, there are enough reasons why the Palestinians should be more serious than before to keep security for themselves and for the state of Israel as well."
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