Israel completes West Bank town handover
Israel completed its handover of the West Bank town of Tulkarem to Palestinian security control Tuesday, ceremonially unlocking a gate that had blocked traffic between the town and main points in the West Bank.
Israeli and Palestinian commanders topped the handover with a handshake at the gate, which is to be removed at a later point. The transfer of control to Palestinian forces has nudged along a conciliation process that has proceeded fitfully since leaders announced an end to four years of bloodshed.
Tulkarem is the second of five towns to be delivered to Palestinian security as part of an agreement to end four years of bloodshed that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced at a Feb. 8 summit. Palestinian militant groups issued truce declarations last week that reinforced the accord.
Violence has dropped since the summit. But not all confidence-building measures ¡ª transfer of the towns and release of more Palestinian prisoners ¡ª have been implemented.
Israeli and Palestinian security officers hammered out a compromise over Tulkarem in two meetings Monday.
The senior Israeli commander, Col. Tamir Hayman, told The Associated Press that Palestinian police would be in control of the area as of Monday evening, and the main roadblock at Tulkarem would be dismantled Tuesday morning, completing the process.
After the agreement was announced, Palestinians celebrated in Tulkarem, with masked men firing weapons in the air. Palestinian police watched without taking action.
The main sticking points of talks Monday were two villages north of Tulkarem, where Israel says the Islamic Jihad cell responsible for a Feb. 25 suicide bombing that killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv operates. Israeli officials said Israel would remain in control of the villages for now.
"We agreed, we signed. This is good for Israel and for the Palestinians," Hayman told reporters.
The handover process got off to a limping start when talks over the oasis town of Jericho bogged down for weeks over similar issues: which roadblocks Israel would remove and how much territory the Palestinians would receive.
Difficulties over the first two towns seemed to spell trouble ahead. Next in line is Qalqiliya, which like Tulkarem is in a sensitive position on the line between Israel and the West Bank. Bethlehem, just three miles from Jerusalem, is next, to be followed by Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government.
Israel could raise security concerns at each stage, dragging out the process. Israel points to more than four years of Palestinian attacks, including more than 100 suicide bombings, to explain its focus on security. Palestinians say the Israeli reservations amount to bad faith.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Israel already agreed to hand over the five towns and the areas around them at the Feb. 8 summit. Speaking before the Tulkarem agreement, Qureia angrily accused Israel of "renegotiating issues that are already agreed upon."
Israeli officials confirmed that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has approved construction of 3,500 more housing units in and around Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, three miles east of Jerusalem.
"It's a kind of terror against the peace process and against the Palestinian people," Qureia said.
The road map, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state, requires Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank. It also requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
The new Palestinian order to militants appeared to be a first step toward disarming gunmen.
Senior Palestinian security officials said the Interior Ministry has distributed a letter outlining weapons restrictions to hundreds of militants in the West Bank.
The restrictions limit militants to a single weapon and bar them from loading the weapons or carrying them in public, the official said. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Associated Press.
Israel welcomed the move, but leaders of the al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant faction affiliated with Abbas' Fatah faction, said they would not sign the pledge until Israel completes its withdrawal from the five West Bank towns.