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Israel to Transfer West Bank Security (AP) By PETER ENAV TEL AVIV, ISRAEL 01/30/05 9:07 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A48721-2005Jan30.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
TEL AVIV, Israel - Israel will transfer security control over several West Bank towns to the Palestinians in coming days, Israel´s defense minister said Sunday, hours after meeting with a top Palestinian negotiator to work out the details of Israel´s troop redeployment.

A senior Palestinian security official said control of the first four towns - Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Jericho - would be handed over Wednesday, the latest sign of rapid change on the ground after more than four years of fighting.

Israel informed Palestinian officials it was ready to withdraw from all West Bank towns "within a very short period of time" and return to positions it held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, said Hassan Abu Libdeh, a senior Palestinian official.

Such a pullback is part of the long-stalled, U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which both sides now say they are ready to implement.

Abu Libdeh said the pullback would include removing some of the roadblocks now ringing Palestinian towns and severely disrupting daily life in the West Bank.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, meanwhile, said Feb. 8 is emerging as a target date for a summit between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a crucial step toward ending hostilities and resuming peace talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will arrive in the region two days earlier for talks with both sides.

Abu Libdeh said the summit would be prepared in detail, and a decisive meeting of Abbas and Sharon aides would be held later this week.

"We want a very successful summit that will end with results," he said.

Palestinian officials said they expect a wide-ranging agenda that will include the declaration of a formal truce, a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners and the resumption of peace negotiations.

Israel, however, appears reluctant to move from security concerns into political matters.

The renewed peace hopes came after a sharp drop in violence. Abbas has obtained a promise from armed groups to halt attacks on Israel and has deployed Palestinian police across the Gaza Strip.

In response, Israel´s army chief said he would halt military operations in Gaza and scale them back in the West Bank.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia met on Sunday with leaders of militant groups in Gaza. Participants affirmed their agreement to suspend attacks on Israel.

Also Sunday, a Palestinian man was killed by Israeli army fire along the Gaza-Egypt border, Palestinian officials said. The military said the man was deep inside a no-go zone, close to an Israeli army post along a patrol road near the border, when troops shot him.

Late Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met for nearly five hours with a Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, at a Tel Aviv hotel to work out the details of a West Bank redeployment.

"We talked about handing over responsibility, as has started in the Gaza Strip. We believe that in the next few days they will get responsibility over other towns in the West Bank," Mofaz told Israel Army Radio.

Mofaz also said the Israeli military has changed its rules of engagement.

"Wherever the Palestinians operate, and operate effectively, there will be no need for our counter-terrorist activity," he said.

The minister later told the weekly meeting of Israel´s Cabinet that the number of Palestinian attacks had dropped by as much as 75 percent in the past few days.

Both sides said Mofaz and Dahlan held their talks in a good atmosphere. Dahlan left without speaking to reporters.

Qureia described the meeting as "constructive."

"We hope that when it comes to implementation, it will be positive," he added.

Palestinian officials said security commanders will meet Monday to work out the details of the handover. A second Mofaz-Dahlan meeting is tentatively set for Tuesday, Palestinian officials said.

The two sides also discussed the return of 39 Palestinian militants deported from the West Bank in 2002 after a monthlong siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Most of the deportees will be allowed to return, said a Palestinian official involved in the negotiations.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Saturday that Abbas was "very close" to a political agreement with the militants that would include a cease-fire, but he added that a formal halt to violence would depend on Israel.

He said Israel must formally accept a cease-fire, withdraw troops from West Bank cities and release some of the 7,000 prisoners it is holding to move forward with the accord.

"There is a temporary cease-fire and we are waiting for an Israeli response," Shaath told The Associated Press by phone from Syria, where he met government officials and the leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas. "If Israel reciprocated, the cease-fire will turn from a temporary into a permanent one."

Shaath said Egypt, a key mediator, invited representatives of militant groups to Cairo next week to continue the efforts. Four top Egyptian security officials will visit Gaza on Thursday to review the Palestinian police deployment and meet with leaders of militant groups. (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/30/05)

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