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Israel Ready to Turn Over West Bank Towns (AP) By MARK LAVIE JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 01/31/05 1:41 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50366-2005Jan31.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM - With a de-facto truce holding, Israel was preparing to hand control of West Bank towns over to Palestinian police this week, a concrete step to change a reality of confrontation and tension through four years of violence.

Israeli officials said Sunday they would pull their forces out of the towns and also take down roadblocks around them, releasing security measures imposed after violence erupted in September 2000 and intensified in 2002, when Israeli forces took over West Bank towns following a series of grisly suicide bombings.

Transfer of control of the towns would be the first large-scale Israeli gesture to acknowledge the decrease in violence since Mahmoud Abbas replaced the late Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader earlier this month.

Abbas has won a commitment from militant groups to stop attacks, and Israel has scaled back its military operations in return - but no formal declarations have been made.

In another significant move, an Israeli official said Sunday Israel would grant an amnesty to West Bank fugitives, ending its relentless search for dozens of militants 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, such as the targeting killing of militant leaders.

In a related development, more than 100,000 settlers and their backers gathered in Jerusalem for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank this summer.

The protesters demanded a referendum on the plan, but Sharon has rejected that as a delaying tactic.

The highlight of the demonstration, one of the city´s largest ever, was a mass pledge to go to Gaza and disrupt the evacuation. "Ariel Sharon, you have no mandate to expel Jews," Effie Eitam, a pro- settler lawmaker, told the crowd.

If the calm holds, Israel pledges to back its troops to the positions they held before the outbreak of violence in 2000, effectively returning the populated areas of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

Both sides appear 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 by adding that the continuing calm depends on the actions of the other side.

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

Abbas and 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.

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.

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

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

Israel´s Channel Two TV showed video Sunday of an advanced radar tracking system being installed next to Gaza to track incoming rockets heading for Sderot, a much-battered Israeli town. The radar is part of the U.S.-Israeli Nautilus system, designed to intercept and destroy small rockets with laser beams. The report said the rest of the system would be installed later. (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/31/05)

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