Israeli president foreshadows pre-Christmas withdrawal from Bethlehem
Israeli President Moshe Katsav said in an historic meeting with Pope John Paul II last week that Israel intends to withdraw its troops from Bethlehem before Christmas, Vatican and Israeli officials said.
The president's pledge, made during the first visit by a president of Israel to the Vatican, was conditional on there being "no warnings of terror operations", according to a Vatican statement.
"The president promised that if there will not be warnings of terror operations, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) will re-deploy outside Bethlehem and in any event the IDF will do everything possible to enable pilgrims to celebrate the festivities as appropriate," it said.
The Pope had asked Katsav for Israel to allow Christians free access to Bethlehem. An Israeli official later said that Katsav was referring to a pre-Christmas pullout from Bethlehem, which annually becomes the centre of Christian festive ceremonies on Christmas Eve.
But he said Israel considered that the conditions for a withdrawal did not exist at present. Israeli troops backed by tanks have made repeated incursions into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank town this year.
Bethlehem has been declared a closed military area by Israel since 23 November, when troops and tanks again deployed the day after a suicide bus bombing in nearby Jerusalem claimed the lives of 10 people.
According to officials present at the "warm and cordial" 15-minute meeting in John Paul II's private library, the Pope said he viewed the visit with the greatest importance and expected it would be a turning point in relations between Israel and the Holy See.
Pope meets with president of the state of Israel (Vatican Information Service)
Violence in Bethlehem Stops Tradition (AP)
16 Dec 2002