BETHLEHEM, Dec. 21 -- Thousands of cheering Palestinians crowded Manger Square Thursday in the city renowned as the birthplace of Christ and fireworks lit the dusk sky with the arrival of Palestinian police officers and the departure of Israeli troops after 28-years of military occupation. Young Palestinian men angrily chased Israeli army jeeps out of their headquarters across from the Church of the Nativity in the Square. But the Palestinians soon turned to cheer on 250 Palestinian policemen arriving in jeeps to the explosion of fireworks and the Israelis continued without incident. Israeli troops handed over control of the city as part of the expansion of Palestinian self-rule under the Oslo accords signed in September between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 'The feeling of the people is that of happiness,' Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij said. 'I feel that the peace process is going on well. All the commitments made by Israel and the Palestinians are being fulfilled according to schedule. 'This is the beginning which will ultimately end in real peace,' he said. Palestinians stormed the former army headquarters, climbing the walls and tearing down the towering 6-meter high fence that had surrounded the premises as others ululated to the sounds to festive drums. 'Life with the Israeli army was hell,' said Samir Abu Jaber, 37, of Bethlehem. 'The Israelis stepped like human beings when they step on ants. Every day our people were stepped on.' Bethlehem was the sixth Palestinian city in the West Bank to be handed over to Palestinian control, following Jericho, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and Nablus.
The Bethlehem withdrawal came three days behind schedule as construction crews had not completed a new bypass road Israeli settlers will use to reach Jerusalem without driving through the Arab city. Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud party warned Israel's capital of Jerusalem stands surrounded by Arabs with the Israeli army redeployment from much of the West Bank. 'The redeployment from Bethlehem is one that endangers the unity of Jerusalem. It helps surround the city with a choking ring,' from every direction, Netanyahu told Israel Radio. The handover was early enough to give Palestinians control of Bethlehem in time for Christmas celebrations that begin Sunday. 'The Palestinian Authority will have time to prepare for the security of Christmas, for the joint celebrations of Christians, Muslims and Jews,' Israeli Brig. Gen. Gabi Ofir told Israel Radio. Arafat is scheduled to take part in the festivities, being carried out for the first time under Palestinian control since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.