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Saturday, 11 May, 2002, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Bethlehem comes back to life
Mother kisses her child outside the Church of the Nativity
Bethlehem comes back to life
Bethlehem residents have been flocking to Manger Square to celebrate the peaceful end of the six-week siege of the Church of the Nativity and the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Palestinians inspect debris left behind by those besieged in the Church of the Nativity
The church is littered with debris
Greek Orthodox and Franciscan monks held thanksgiving prayers in the church on Friday, but a public mass planned for Saturday morning has been postponed for a day to allow the church to be cleaned.

BBC correspondent Jonny Diamond says the streets of Bethlehem are packed; music blares out of shops and sacks of fresh food clutter the narrow lanes.

In Gaza, Palestinians have been bracing themselves for a large Israeli incursion, but the government is now reassessing its plans for retaliation there for a suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis.

End of the campaign

The pullout of Israeli forces came after 13 Palestinian militants, who have been exiled from the West Bank under a deal to end the siege, arrived in Cyprus.

Another group of militants involved in the standoff were given a hero's welcome when they arrived in the Gaza Strip, casting doubt on Israeli hopes that they would be put on trial.

The withdrawal in effect ends Israel's military offensive in the West Bank, which was launched on 29 March.

Israeli soldiers inspect guns and ammunition found in the Church of Nativity
Weapons left behind were collected by American officials
Church siege deal
  • 13 militants to be exiled in Europe
  • 26 gunmen removed to Gaza
  • 84 civilians and police will be released
  • 10 activists to be deported   

    Click here for Bethlehem siege timeline

  • The United States said the peaceful outcome to the siege - during which several armed men and two civilians were shot dead by Israeli snipers - was an opportunity to move towards a new political dialogue.

    Hundreds of Palestinians pushed past barriers that encircled Bethlehem's holiest shrine throughout the 39-day standoff, some running up to the church compound and touching the stonework.

    The church bells were rung for several minutes.

    Inside the church damage was found to be mostly superficial, although the church reeked of waste and was strewn with rubbish, dirty dishes, blankets and cigarette butts.


    The mayor of Bethlehem said the town had paid a heavy price after a "brutal and destructive occupation", insisting that the mood in Bethlehem was sad despite the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

    Voices from the Conflict

    Every human being who has his land invaded, all he possesses taken and his rights denied has a right to resist - he has a right to do this by any means he has

    Abu al Abed, Palestinian militant

      Read his story

    The Israeli army said its soldiers had found 40 explosive devices during a search of the church following its evacuation.

    As with other towns in the West Bank hit by Israel's sweeping offensive, which it called Operation Defensive Shield, the army only pulled back to the outskirts of Bethlehem.

    Fears of further incursions by Israeli troops led to bakeries and food stores being flooded by anxious residents, the Associated Press reported.

    Gaza action reviewed

    Israel called up military reservists earlier this week in a clear sign that action was imminent in the Gaza Strip.

    Palestinian militiamen took up positions behind sandbags and mounds of debris as Israeli tanks and troops massed around the borders.

    But following consultations between Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and top security officials, the government is now reported to be reassessing its options.

    There is said to be concern that too much advance publicity has compromised any possible military operation.

    The BBC's Peter Biles, reporting from Jerusalem, says that a targeted Israeli strike against Gaza is likely to be more difficult than many of the recent incursions into the West Bank.

    Israeli forces had earlier on Friday raided the West Bank city of Tulkarm where they blew up an apartment block that had been home to a suicide bomber whose killing of 29 people in an Israeli hotel at the end of March sparked Israel's offensive.

    The BBC's Michael Voss
    "There is still a lot to be worked out"
    Mayor of Bethlehem Hanna Nasser
    "Civilian institutions have been destroyed"
    See also:

    11 May 02 | Middle East
    Church emerges unharmed from siege
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Eyewitness: Calm end to siege
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Analysis: No winners from siege deal
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    In pictures: End of Bethlehem siege
    09 May 02 | Middle East
    Timeline: Bethlehem siege
    09 May 02 | Middle East
    Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations
    10 May 02 | Middle East
    Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
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