In the latest sign of budding cooperation, Israel’s defense minister said Sunday that the army probably would withdraw troops from some West Bank cities in a matter of days, turning security over to Palestinian forces.
A pullback of Israeli troops from cities where they have operated during the nearly 4 1/2 -year-old conflict would meet a key demand of the new Palestinian leadership, which has impressed Israel by moving to quell the activities of armed militants in the Gaza Strip.
The transfer proposal comes amid preparations for a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which is tentatively planned for next week. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive Sunday for visits with both sides, Israeli media reported.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that specifics of the withdrawal would be ironed out with the Palestinians. An initial pullback could take place this week in four cities: Ramallah, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Jericho, according to Palestinian sources cited by Israeli media.
Israeli officials said the withdrawal probably would be accompanied by the removal of roadblocks, which Palestinians complain inhibit their movements and choke their economy. Israel has said the roadblocks and checkpoints around Palestinian towns are needed safeguards against suicide bombers making their way into Israel proper.
Mofaz said Israel could remove troops from all Palestinian cities by year’s end.
“We should take care that all the confidence-building measures, the transfer of responsibility and the security coordination shouldn’t come at the expense of security,” Mofaz told Israel Radio. “But at the same time, we are discussing with the Palestinian Authority all the issues which have to do with security coordination and the transfer of responsibility in the sense that the Palestinians will now fight against the terror and prevent it.”
Even a limited Israeli withdrawal would restore to Palestinian forces some of the authority they had before the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Under an interim peace agreement, the Palestinians were responsible for managing and policing the main population centers of the West Bank, but Israeli troops seized the cities after violence broke out. Soldiers have pulled back from the cities at times but reentered when new violence occurred.
“It’s a good development,” Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said of the proposed withdrawal. He said the goal was a return to the patrolling responsibilities that had been in place before the uprising, or intifada.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials were preparing to resume their role as a go-between on security between the Israelis and Palestinians, the daily newspaper Haaretz reported. The newspaper said the three-way arrangement, headed by CIA officers and with Israeli and Palestinian security officials, was aimed at preventing routine violence from escalating.
A similar setup collapsed amid the current uprising.
Israeli leaders expressed more praise Sunday for the way Abbas had curbed militant groups by appealing for calm and deploying police in pockets of the Gaza Strip where fighters had been launching mortar shells and rockets into Israeli communities. The volleys have nearly stopped.
Israel had said Abbas would have to take steps against the militants before meaningful progress toward reconciliation could take place.
Palestinian militants have agreed to hold their fire while Abbas seeks a broader cease-fire with Israel. Last week, Israel’s military command ordered the army to halt incursions in the Gaza Strip and reduce them in the West Bank. The orders, from the army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, included an end to the “targeted killings” of militants.
Both sides have been drained by the conflict, and they appear intent on taking advantage of a changed political landscape since the death in November of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Israel had refused to deal with Arafat, saying he promoted terrorism. The Jan. 9 election of Abbas, a relative moderate, to succeed the late president has fed hopes of a breakthrough, though officials caution that the current calm could be easily broken.
“Like two exhausted boxers who lean on one another and on the ropes and are only waiting for the end finally to arrive, without asking who won and who lost, that is how Israel and the Palestinians are stumbling toward the end of the war,” commentator Ofer Shelah wrote Sunday in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
In other developments, an estimated 100,000 Jewish settlers and their supporters gathered Sunday night near the Israeli parliament to protest Sharon’s plan to evacuate Gaza settlements this year.
The settlers are seeking to head off the evacuation of all 21 Gaza settlements and four others in the northern West Bank, by urging that a national referendum be held first.
Elsewhere, Israeli troops opened fire and killed a Palestinian man who entered a prohibited military zone near the Gaza border with Egypt, the Israeli army said.