NABLUS, West Bank – Israel is deeply skeptical about Egypt's assurances that the Palestinians are willing to overhaul their security services ahead of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the defense minister said Friday.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) spoke during a meeting with U.S. envoy William Burns, who is touring the region to mobilize support for the withdrawal plan.
In the West Bank city of Nablus (search), an 18-year-old Palestinian was killed by army fire on the second day of a search for fugitives and bomb labs. The youth was shot on a rooftop as he held a gas canister above his head, the army said. Soldiers fired because they feared he would drop the canister on them, the army said.
Since the start of the large-scale raid, 10 Palestinians have been wounded by live fire, Palestinian medics said.
Soldiers took over 16 buildings in Nablus' old city, or Casbah, home to about 20,000 residents and a stronghold of militants. Families in the buildings commandeered by troops were confined to one room per apartment, witnesses said.
The Mofaz-Burns meeting came two days after Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman (search) held separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the terms of Israel's Gaza withdrawal, to be completed by the end of 2005.
Israel refuses to talk directly to the Palestinians, and Egypt has stepped in as mediator.
Egypt has given Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat until September to reform his security services by merging many of the branches and replacing some of the commanders. Arafat also is expected to relinquish some of his authorities.
Arafat told Suleiman he was ready to carry out reforms, but there have been no signs of changes on the ground. Arafat has fiercely resisted security reforms in the past, fearing they would undercut his authority.
Suleiman reportedly has said he is optimistic the Palestinians would fulfill their obligations. "Don't be so pessimistic," the Yediot Ahronot daily quoted Suleiman as telling Mofaz.
However, Mofaz said Friday that he remains skeptical.
"I have considerable doubt that they [the Palestinians] will really do everything that is required of them — true reform, the merging of the security branches, replacing security chiefs, dismantling the terror infrastructure," he said at the start of his meeting with Burns in Tel Aviv.
Under the Egyptian plan, Palestinian militant groups would gather in Cairo in September for a cease-fire declaration. Within eight months, Palestinian security forces would begin collecting illegal weapons.
Mofaz said Israel welcomes Egypt's involvement, "but the test is in the results."
On Thursday, Mideast envoys from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — met in Cairo to discuss the Gaza withdrawal and how to tie into the "road map" peace plan. The road map, backed by the Quartet, envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.
Burns, who participated in those talks, said Friday that the Gaza withdrawal "is a step, hopefully, toward the implementation of the road map."
"I'm here as part of an effort to ... mobilize international support for it," he said of the Gaza plan.
The Israeli military, meanwhile, said its Nablus operation, the largest in more than a year, would last several days.
The raid was triggered in part by the arrest earlier in the week of an 18-year-old city resident who was recruited by Al Aqsa to blow himself up in Jerusalem. The youth was caught at an Israeli checkpoint and soldiers later found his explosives hidden in a school bag.
On Thursday, soldiers handed out leaflets explaining that they are looking for seven men, most from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a militant group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
"Help us catch them because they are the ones who are causing damage to Nablus," read the leaflet distributed around the neighborhood.
The Nablus leader of Al Aqsa, Nayef Abu Sharikh, was among those on the wanted list. His mother, Dahieh, said soldiers burst into her home looking for her son.
"They were shouting, cursing," she said. "They damaged closets, threw all the things inside on the floor."
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Israeli troops demolished the apartment of a senior militant of the Islamic Jihad (search) group, the army said. Ahmed Abu Akher was involved in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem last year and shooting attacks on an outlying neighborhood of the city, the army spokesman said.