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Israelis withdraw from Palestinian stronghold

/ Source: Reuters

Palestinians in a West Bank city now separated from Israel by a controversial barrier awoke Friday to a rare sight -- streets empty of Israeli forces that pulled out after a long encirclement.

The Israeli army said removal of the “closure” it imposed on Jenin last year was “in keeping with assessments of the security situation.”

The Israeli army surrounded the city last August after a truce declared by Palestinian factions collapsed amid violence and a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 20 people.

Roads opened, barriers gone
Residents said routes were opened between the city’s eight entrances and surrounding villages after Israeli troops dismantled roadblocks and tanks pulled back.

The West Bank barrier, which Israel says is stopping suicide bombers from reaching its cities, looms several miles to the north and northwest.

Palestinians call the project, which has drawn international condemnation, a land grab aimed at denying them the contiguous state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Road map" peace plan
Israel is meant to ease restrictions on Palestinians under a U.S.-backed peace “road map” bogged down by persistent violence and the failure of either side to take promised steps.

Under the "road map" peace plan, Palestinians are supposed to crack down on militant factions while Israel must freeze settlement growth on territory captured in the 1967 war, and dismantle unauthorized outposts.

Stronghold for militants
Jenin, a hotbed of militants and the scene of heavy fighting in April 2002, has been surrounded by Israeli forces for the better part of three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Jenin’s Palestinian governor, Ramadan al-Batta, said the army’s decision was made without any security coordination with his side and he feared this reflected a new Israeli unilateralism that would marginalize Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has told Palestinians that if they do not stop attacks and enter road map talks within a few months, Israel will unilaterally draw security boundaries stripping them of some of the land they seek for a viable state.