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Israel Says West Bank Troop Pullback Possible Soon (REUTERS) By Jeffrey Heller JERUSALEM, ISRAEL Additional reporting by Corinne Heller in Jerusalem, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah 01/30/05 03:41 AM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7474929 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli troops could pull back from several West Bank cities within days, pending the outcome of further talks with the new Palestinian leadership, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Sunday.

In another sign of a possible revival of peacemaking after more than four years of violence, officials from both sides said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would meet around Feb. 8.

"I think there is an opportunity to create a new reality," Mofaz told Israel Radio after holding talks late Saturday with Palestinian official Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief, on confidence- building steps.

"One of the issues we discussed is the transfer of (West Bank) cities," Mofaz said. "It is very possible responsibility will be transferred (to Palestinian security forces) in some of the cities in the next few days. We are supposed to meet again to finalize the issues."

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said such a pullback would be "a step in the right direction."

The Israeli army has a network of checkpoints surrounding West Bank cities and has mounted frequent raids against militants since the start of a Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

But violence has dropped sharply since Abbas, who is trying to coax gunmen into a cease-fire they say must be reciprocated by Israel, deployed Palestinian security forces across the Gaza Strip earlier this month to prevent attacks on Israelis.

Israel, which plans to remove all 21 Jewish settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank this summer, announced Friday it was sharply reducing its military operations in the Palestinian territories in response to Abbas´s moves.

"Over the past few days, they proved that they carried out what they pledged," Mofaz said. "It´s still not a cessation of terror ... but they have shown a readiness to continue to assume responsibility and press ahead with security cooperation."

Mofaz said he and Dahlan discussed the issue of a prisoner release in general terms "but nothing has been decided on the scope or timing."


The planned Sharon-Abbas summit would coincide with a scheduled visit to the region by new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She has pledged intensive personal efforts to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace after Yasser Arafat´s death.

Erekat told Israeli Army Radio that officials from both sides would meet "within three to four days" to finalize arrangements for the summit, which he said he hoped would be followed by a series of top- level meetings.

"Returning the situation to that which existed prior to September 2000 is the issue now," he said in comments to Reuters, calling on Israel "to remove roadblocks, checkpoints and blockades from our towns and refugee camps."

Abbas, backed by the United States as a moderate and reformist, was elected to succeed Arafat as president on Jan. 9.

Abbas and Sharon last met in 2003, signing a U.S.-backed peace "road map" charting mutual steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Abbas served as Arafat´s prime minister at the time. (Additional reporting by Corinne Heller in Jerusalem, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah) (© Reuters 2005 01/30/05)

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