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Israel extends amnesty to terrorist fugitives, hands over security to PA (ISRAEL INSIDER) By Israel Insider staff and partners 01/30/05)Source: http://web.israelinsider.com/Articles/Diplomacy/4899.htm ISRAEL INSIDER ISRAEL INSIDER Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Palestinian police commanders prepared Sunday to take control of four West Bank towns by midweek, after top Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed on a security plan for the West Bank.

Transfer of control of the towns would be the first large-scale Israeli move on the ground to acknowledge that since Mahmoud Abbas replaced the late Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader earlier this month, violence has decreased significantly.

An Israeli official said Sunday Israel would grant an amnesty to West Bank fugitives, ending its relentless search for dozens of terrorists suspected of carrying out or planning attacks. In four years of conflict, dozens have been killed in Israeli raids and many more arrested.

The amnesty would allow Abbas to fulfill a key campaign pledge made before he handily won a Jan. 9 election to replace Arafat -- that fugitives would be allowed to reintegrate into Palestinian society with no fear of Israeli reprisal.

Israel has long held the right to strike at terrorists, though Palestinians called the operations assassinations and human rights groups condemned the practice.

In related development, tens of thousands of settlers and their backers were gathering in Jerusalem for a demonstration against Sharon´s plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank in the summer. The protesters demanded a referendum on the plan, but Sharon has rejected that as a delaying tactic.

If the calm holds, Israel pledges to back its troops up to the positions they held before the outbreak of violence in September 2000 -- in effect, turning the populated areas of the West Bank back over to Palestinian control -- another major step toward resumption of long-stalled peace talks.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were heading toward their first meeting since 2003, when Abbas was prime minister. Feb. 8 was emerging as the date for the summit -- the first between an Israeli premier and a Palestinian leader since 2000, when Arafat met then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The new U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is to arrive in the region two days before the planned summit.

Both sides appeared eager to put four years of violence behind them, but the bloodshed has left its mark on their ability to trust each other. Each side has been qualifying its declarations about peace and quiet by adding that the continuation depends on the actions of the other side.

Though signs were positive, it was clear that the atmosphere could quickly sour if there is a serious Palestinian attack or Israeli military strike.

For the meantime, though, gestures, meetings and practical steps were in the works.

Late Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Abbas aide, and told him the transfer of authority in the first of the towns would take place in the coming days.

A senior Palestinian security official said the first four towns -- Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Jericho -- would be handed over on Wednesday.

Israeli forces retook Palestinian population centers in a large-scale military operation in 2002, following a wave of grisly suicide bombings in Israel. Since then, Israel has pulled its troops out of the towns several times, but it left a tight cordon of checkpoints around them and eventually marched back in after violence resumed.

This time, according to security officials, Israel will dismantle roadblocks around the towns as well, allowing for more freedom of movement in the West Bank than the Palestinians have had since the violence erupted.

Details of the new arrangements were to be discussed at another meeting between Mofaz and Dahlan on Tuesday or Wednesday, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On Saturday night, the two also discussed the return of 39 Palestinian militants who were 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, but the Israeli officials could not confirm that.

Security commanders were to meet again Monday in what is becoming routine coordination -- a stark contrast to months of overt hostility.

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.

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

Also Sunday, a 65-year-old Palestinian civilian 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. The AP contributed to this report. (© 2001-2005 Koret Communications Ltd. 01/30/05)

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