Israel, Palestinians dispute handover
Israel and the Palestinians deadlocked Wednesday over returning control of West Bank towns to Palestinian control, extending a stalemate that threatens to increase frustration and anger that could lead to increased violence after a monthlong truce.
Despite the risk of losing momentum in peace efforts, both sides clung to their positions.
The Palestinians insisted Israel remove army roadblocks around the towns and lift travel restrictions. Israel said it cannot take security risks until Palestinian security forces do a better job reining in militants.
Washington's new envoy, William Ward, a U.S. Army general, was due to take up his new post Thursday, and Paul Patin, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, raised the possibility that Ward would intervene in the negotiations. "Security coordination is his brief," he said.
On Wednesday, two meetings of Israeli and Palestinian security commanders in Jericho broke up without agreement, and no new talks were scheduled. The breakdown came a day after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz failed to settle the dispute over the roadblocks north and south of Jericho.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia accused Israel of dragging its feet, and the violent Islamic group Hamas warned that Israel "will be held fully responsible for the consequences."
In a curious twist, the disagreement over Jericho appeared to focus mostly on a gleaming luxury casino and hotel just outside town. Built during the heyday of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking in the mid-1990s, the Oasis casino closed after the outbreak of violence in the fall of 2000 kept away its mainly Israeli customers.
Many Palestinians in Jericho are hoping that peace will bring the Israelis back, restoring jobs and boosting the town's battered tourism-based economy. At its height, the casino and adjacent hotel employed 1,600 Palestinians and 450 foreigners, but now only about 60 workers maintain the building.
Everything looked ready at the casino Wednesday. The floors sparkled, chairs were neatly stacked on the tables, chips piled carefully on the gaming tables. Slot machines blinked and whirred.
Security manager Hans Holek said returning West Bank towns, including Jericho, to Palestinian control would calm the area and allow the casino to reopen.
"We have to have a certain level of stability. When the cities reopen, then we can begin to make financial plans," he said.
But the Israelis don't think the time is right yet. A ban on Israeli citizens entering Palestinian areas is still in force, and one of the Israeli checkpoints the Palestinians wanted removed stands between Israel and the casino.
The roadblock stands in the desert, with soldiers checking vehicles entering and exiting Jericho. Planted on the rocky ground nearby are air-conditioned trailers for commanders and the district liaison office. A 25-foot-high concrete wall protects the trailers from car bombs.
In recent months, the Israeli military has taken steps to ease long waits at the checkpoint, opening a second lane for incoming traffic. But residents say they are often held up for an hour or more.
Israeli officials say removing the roadblock would endanger Vered Yericho, a nearby Jewish settlement of 160 residents.
"Without lifting the roadblocks, the handover will be meaningless," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian government official who lives in Jericho.