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Israel offers to transfer West Bank security - Palestinian girl killed in clashes (THE BOSTON GLOBE) By Dan Ephron JERUSALEM, Israel 01/27/05)Source: http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2005/01/27/israel_offers_to_transfer_west_bank_security/ BOSTON GLOBE BOSTON GLOBE Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM -- Israeli officials yesterday offered to transfer control over security in several West Bank towns, part of a series of Israeli and Palestinian initiatives marking the most serious attempt yet to halt more than four years of fighting.

Officials on both sides said the latest moves were discussed in the first high-level diplomatic meeting between the two sides since Mahmoud Abbas was elected Palestinian president earlier this month.

The talks came amid a sharp drop in Palestinian attacks against Israel in the past week and signs that the Jewish state is willing to freeze most offensive military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including its contentious policy of assassinating top militants. But fresh clashes killed a 3-year-old Palestinian girl and a militant yesterday, underscoring the fragility of the effort.

In Gaza, meanwhile, representatives of several Palestinian factions said they have agreed to hold their fire for a month, while Abbas tries to persuade Sharon to stop pursuing Palestinian fugitives, free thousands of prisoners, and withdraw to the lines Israel held before hostilities erupted in September 2000.

Those are among the conditions from the Islamic Hamas and other hard- line groups for a longer-term Palestinian cease-fire.

In exchange for their cooperation, Abbas agreed to consider sharing power with Hamas and other opposition groups, one representative said.

Saeb Erekat, a member of Abbas´s Cabinet and the principal negotiator on the Palestinian side, said yesterday´s talks focused on the agenda of a summit between Abbas and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, although no date was set.

He said the Israeli team, headed by Sharon´s chief diplomatic adviser, Dov Weisglass, inquired how quickly the battered Palestinian police force would be prepared to deploy in West Bank towns that Israeli troops have occupied since 2002 following a spree of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

´´They´re willing to hand over control in several towns as soon as we´re ready. We talked about our security people sitting down and discussing the transfer," Erekat said in an interview.

´´But we have to see what kind of capabilities we have [in the West Bank]. It´s a question of putting our credibility on the line. We can´t afford to promise and not deliver," he said.

Erekat said it was the ´´first time in a long time" he felt encouraged by a meeting with Israelis. Abbas, after being briefed on the talks, described them as ´´promising in all aspects."

Israel wants Palestinian security forces to impose order in the towns and prevent armed attacks on Israelis, an endeavor Abbas pledged to undertake while campaigning to succeed longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after his death on Nov. 11 of an undetermined illness.

Hundreds of Palestinian troops have taken up positions in the Gaza Strip in recent days, and that deployment has nearly frozen rocket attacks on Israeli communities in the area.

While Gaza´s security forces have remained largely intact during the years of fighting, Israeli strikes have nearly wiped out police units in parts of the West Bank, making it harder for Palestinians to reassert control there.

A spokesman for Sharon said yesterday that Israel was ready to stop raiding West Bank and Gaza towns once Palestinian troops take over, but would still act to thwart suicide attacks.

´´We made it very clear that in places where they are going to assume responsibility and control, we´ll refrain from military action. That includes targeted interceptions," said Ra´anan Gissin, Sharon´s media adviser, using Israel´s term for its practice of killing extremist leaders considered a threat to Israeli security.

´´However, in places where they are deployed or not, if they fail for whatever reason to stop ticking bombs, suicide bombers that we know are on the way, we reserve the right to stop them after we give the Palestinians a chance to stop them. We´re not going to sit back and play dead and wait for suicide attacks," he said.

Gissin confirmed that Israel offered to pull troops out of West Bank towns whenever Palestinians were prepared to assume responsibility. Except for very brief periods in the past four years, Israel has been unwilling to halt the assassinations of wanted militants despite criticism from abroad and from some left-wing groups at home.

According to the Israeli human rights group B´Tselem, Israel has killed 181 militants in targeted strikes since fighting began in September 2000, either in helicopter missile strikes or attacks by ground troops. But at least 107 bystanders have also been killed in the pinpoint operations, the group says.

Palestinians describe the strikes as ´´extrajudicial killings" and say they only help militant groups recruit new activists. But military analysts believe they have substantially weakened groups like Hamas, which Israel and the US State Department have declared a terrorist organization.

´´It has definitely been a success," said Zeev Livne, a reserve army general who served as the military secretary to two Israeli prime ministers. He pointed to the assassination last year of Hamas´s two principals -- Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi -- as a turning point.

´´I believe one of the reasons that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are willing to cooperate today is because their leaders have been targeted," he said.

In the West Bank yesterday, undercover Israeli troops shot dead a Hamas militant and wounded two members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs´ Brigades -- a militia aligned with Abbas´s Fatah faction -- in an operation that the Israelis described as an attempted arrest that ended in gunfire.

Later, in the Gaza Strip, a 3-year-old Palestinian girl died in her home from what witnesses said was an Israeli gunshot wound. Israeli officials confirmed soldiers opened fired after Palestinian fighters launched a rocket from the area but disputed the circumstances of the girl´s death.

A spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs´ Brigades said if the Israeli assaults continue, his group would resume attacks against the Jewish state.

´´We demand that all killings, liquidations, and incursions into Palestinian cities stop within the coming 24 hours," Abu Mohammed, a spokesman for the group, told a news conference in Gaza City.

´´If not . . . we will find ourselves free of any commitment and will then respond to Zionist crimes by striking anywhere and at any time of our choosing," he said.

Members of all the Palestinian armed factions held talks with Abbas in the past week in Gaza on their conditions for a cease-fire with Israel.

Saleh Zeidan, a member of the opposition Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who participated in the talks, said reciprocity was the key to a cease-fire.

´´We agreed on the principle of a respite . . . until Abu Mazen achieves an official agreement with Israel on these issues," Zeidan said, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. ´´We have the right to defend ourselves during the period of calm. All the factions have accepted to give a chance to Abu Mazen."

Zeidan said the factions hoped to reach an agreement with Abbas ´´within weeks" on a leadership body that would advise Abbas´s administration and include members of Hamas and other opposition groups. Globe correspondent Sa´id Ghazali contributed to this report from Jerusalem. (Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 01/27/05)

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