Israel and the Palestinians took tentative steps toward meeting their first obligations under a peace plan Thursday, a day after affirming their commitment to the three-phase document at a U.S.-sponsored Mideast summit.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas prepared to meet with Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip (search) over the weekend, and hopes to extract a pledge from them within a week to halt attacks on Israelis, a senior Palestinian official said.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) met with army commanders Thursday to prepare for dismantling 12 to 15 settlement outposts in the West Bank, the Haaretz daily said. The ministry confirmed the meeting, but declined comment on what was discussed.
The first outposts will be removed in the coming days, said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
About 100 outposts, consisting of a few mobile homes each, have been set up by settlers on West Bank hilltops in the past five years to thwart land-for-peace agreements. At Wednesday's summit in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba (search), under the auspices of President Bush, Sharon said he would start removing outposts, but did not say how many.
The peace plan calls for dismantling those established since March 2001, when Sharon took office. The Maariv daily on Thursday quoted Sharon as saying he had disagreements with the United States over the outposts.
Implementation of the so-called "road map" to Palestinian statehood by 2005 will be supervised by international monitors, with the United States taking the lead.
A contingent of 12 to 15 CIA and State Department officials was to arrive in the region by Friday, said Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath (search). The group will be headed by State Department official John S. Wolf, who has served in Australia, Vietnam, Greece and Pakistan. Wolf is assistant secretary for nonproliferation.
In Israel and the Palestinian areas, opposition to the peace plan was strong.
Leaders of the militant groups Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search) accused Abbas of selling out. At Wednesday's summit, Abbas pledged to end the "armed intefadeh," renounced "terrorism against the Israelis wherever they might be" and alluded to the disarming of militants.
Despite their criticism, Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials said Thursday they were willing to hear the prime minister's proposals, but insisted the groups would not lay down their arms. The militant groups have killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and bombings in the past 32 months of fighting.
A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abbas is confident he can persuade the two groups to suspend attacks. Abbas is to meet with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders over the weekend, the official said.
If he is successful in reaching a so-called "hudna," he will hold more talks with Sharon, their third one-on-one in a month. Shoval confirmed another Sharon-Abbas meeting was planned in the near future.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was not invited to the summit, said Abbas failed to win real commitments from Sharon.
"Unfortunately, the Israelis did not give anything. What does it mean to move a trailer here or there?" Arafat said Thursday, referring to the Israeli outposts.
In downtown Jerusalem, meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters joined a protest against the road map Wednesday evening. The peace plan calls for a construction freeze in about 150 permanent settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the eventual dismantling of a number of them.
Cabinet minister Effie Eitam, who heads the pro-settlement National Religious Party (search), mocked claims that the Aqaba summit brings hope.
"Hope for whom? For terror? This is the hope of the evil," he told the crowd. "Our hope is to continue living in this land — which is all ours, which all belongs to us," he said, referring to Israel and the West Bank.
Sharon, a major settlement builder in the past two decades, is willing to uproot 17 of the communities to create the territorial continuity needed for a Palestinian state, Israeli Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin (search) said in an interview with Haaretz.
Rivlin did not name the settlements on Sharon's list, but the newspaper said they included several small ones in the northern West Bank.
Maariv quoted Sharon as saying he was committed to the peace plan, despite misgivings. "I don't say it's easy for me, but I know we have to do these things," Sharon told Maariv. "No one is dragging me. I know where I am going."