Palestinians are left surveying
damage as Israeli forces leave
the West Bank and Gaza

Israel also returned control of Gaza’s main highway following a truce declaration on Sunday by four Palestinian groups.

Monday also saw Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade become the fifth group pledging to respect the ceasefire. But a Bulgarian man was shot dead in the West Bank, in an attack claimed by one of its branches.

Shortly after the incident though, they issued a statement pledging "to respect the position of the (Fatah) movement which is calling for a temporary and conditional truce."

In total, six political factions falling under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said they would heed the call by Fatah "for a halt to all military actions for a period of six months."

Governments worldwide – including the US hailed the truce and said they hoped it would be the dawning of a “new era” in the Middle East.

"We're entering a new era now, hopefully," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said after US President George W Bush heard by telephone from national security adviser Condolezza Rice about her just-finished trip to the region.

Israeli troops withdrew from the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun overnight. Palestinian police then took up their positions there and in the neighbouring town of Beit Lahiya.

It was only two months ago when Beit Hanun was under siege from the Israeli army as they stormed into the town looking for resistance fighters.

Highway opened

Meanwhile, traffic flowed freely for the first time in years through the Netzarim junction, just south of Gaza City, the Kissufim junction by central Deir al-Balah, and the Guest House junction just south of Deir al-Balah.

Israeli occupation of the highway turned a typically 30-minute drive from the north to the south of the Gaza Strip, into a three hour ordeal.

Palestinian security now control
the Beit Hanoun crossing

Only one Israeli checkpoint remains, outside the isolated Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom.

A bypass track was soon opened though, to allow Palestinian motorists to get around Kfar Darom without hindrance, Israeli officials say.

The Israeli withdrawals came after the two most prominent resistance groups fighting Israel – Hamas and Islamic Jihad – issued a joint statement on Sunday declaring a three-month ceasefire.

But their conditions consisted of Israel ending attacks against their members and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Sharon confirmed he had asked the Shin Beth domestic intelligence service to provide him with a detailed list of Palestinian prisoners to determine which ones could be released.

Despite the withdrawal, residents of Beit Hanoun were upset on Monday as they surveyed the damage wreaked on their town.

Ali Zaaneen, a Palestinian whose farm near Beit Hanoun was destroyed by Israeli troops, on Monday watched the arrival of the Palestinian police convoy without excitement.

"The Israeli aggression has left no space in our heart for hope and joy," he told the Associated Press news agency.

"Now I am able to go every day to my farm, but I will find nothing to harvest and take to the market."