Handover of West Bank Towns Hits Stumbling Block

Published August 18, 2003

| Associated Press

Palestinian officials say Israel is insisting on retaining roadblocks to control movement in and out of two West Bank (searchtowns it was expected to hand over to Palestinian control, presenting the latest obstacle in tenuous peace efforts.

A meeting of senior Palestinian and Israeli security officials ended inconclusively late Sunday night after the two sides failed to finalize an agreement on the terms of the handover of Jericho (search) and Qalqiliya, which was expected Tuesday.

But a spokesman for Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan (searchsaid the two sides would resume negotiations Tuesday, and the Israeli military said they would reconvene "soon."

Dahlan spokesman Elias Zananiri said the Sunday meeting stalled over Israel's insistence that even after Palestinian security forces take over the towns, the Israeli army will retain roadblocks controlling movement in and out.

"The meeting between the two sides ended without agreeing on a timetable for the withdrawal from Palestinian cities because the Israeli side insisted on keeping the military roadblocks," he said. "The Israeli side has raised some security issues to justify keeping these roadblocks, which we believe will make the withdrawal cosmetic."

An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed that the meeting failed to produce an agreement, but did not give further details other than to describe the meeting as "businesslike" and say the two sides would reconvene soon.

Also Sunday, Palestinian gunmen opened fired at an Israeli car in the West Bank, lightly wounding a woman, the army said.

As part of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, Israeli soldiers pulled out of parts of the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem in the West Bank in July. The plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005, requires a gradual Israeli withdrawal to positions held before the outbreak of fighting, and a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

Troops never reoccupied Jericho during the past three years of fighting, and the only Israeli military presence is at checkpoints on the outskirts. Soldiers are also posted outside Qalqiliya, staging arrest raids from time to time.

Dozens of army roadblocks, set up after the outbreak of fighting nearly three years ago, have paralyzed Palestinian life in many areas and are one of the main points of friction.

"If the checkpoints are not removed, then this withdrawal means nothing," Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Sunday. "The withdrawals are about freedom of movement."

The Jericho and Qalqiliya handover was to have been followed next week by a withdrawal from the towns of Ramallah and Tulkarem. The withdrawal is part of a deal reached last week by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Dahlan. It was not immediately clear if that transfer would also be delayed.

As part of last week's deal, Mofaz agreed to allow the Palestinians to keep militants on Israel's wanted list in check to ensure they do not carry out attacks, rather than arrest them.

A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mofaz has agreed to allow the wanted men to remain in their towns and the Palestinian Authority will be responsible for them.

The official said Israel also promised not to arrest or kill suspects in areas under Palestinian control, provided they refrain from violence.

Dahlan has said he cannot clash with the militants, for fear of setting off internal fighting.

Mofaz said that Israel's demands for militant groups to be dismantled remain unchanged.

"We will not make any kind of concessions regarding our security," Mofaz said Sunday in a news conference with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican leading a visiting congressional delegation.

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