Israel starts pullback operation

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli forces began pulling out of two West Bank towns Sunday, despite an attack by Palestinian gunmen on a bus stop in the north of the country that killed four Israelis.

The shooting attack in Hadera and a drive-by shooting earlier in the day that killed an Israeli soldier had thrown the pullback into question, with Israeli officials demanding a cease-fire before they would withdraw.

Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the redeployment operation had begun. He said the Palestinians had taken steps and "started to comply with their obligations."

Witnesses said tanks were still within Bethlehem and the nearby town of Beit Jalla but had begun moving back toward Israeli territory.

The pullouts from the two towns were to be test cases for Israeli withdrawals from four other towns it entered after the Oct. 17 assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, an ultranationalist Israeli Cabinet minister, by Palestinian militants. The other towns are Jenin, Qalqilya, Ramallah and Tulkarem.

Israel has demanded the Palestinians enforce a cease-fire for the pullouts to take place. The Palestinians say they should take place unconditionally.

Israel said it had entered parts of the towns to hunt for Zeevi's killers and to prevent further attacks on Israelis -- but it came under heavy criticism from the United States and other nations.

38 Palestinians dead

The Israeli incursions represented the most extensive Israeli military action in 13 months of fighting. They left 38 Palestinians dead, failed to net all of Zeevi's killers and angered the Bush administration, which worried that further unrest would undermine support among Arab nations for its anti-terrorism campaign. Sunday's attack took place when two gunmen drove through Hadera, north of Tel Aviv, police said.

"Two weapons were aimed at the two sides of the road and then terrorists opened fire," said an area police chief.