Israel to Conduct West Bank Hand Over

Israel will transfer security control over several West Bank (search) towns to the Palestinians in coming days, Israel's defense minister said Sunday, hours after he met with a top Palestinian security official to work out the details of Israel's troop redeployment.

Israel has informed Palestinian officials that it is ready to withdraw gradually from all West Bank towns and to return to positions it held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat (search).

Such a pullback is part of the long-stalled "road map" peace plan, which both sides now say they are ready to implement.

Erekat also said Feb. 8 is emerging as a target date for a summit between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a crucial stop toward ending hostilities and resuming peace talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to arrive in the region two days earlier for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

A top Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Palestinian police will deploy in four West Bank towns on Wednesday. He added the towns are: Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Jericho.

The renewed peace hopes came after a sharp drop in violence. Abbas has obtained a promise from armed groups to halt attacks on Israel, and has deployed Palestinian police across the Gaza Strip. In response, Israel's army chief said he would halt military operations in Gaza and scale them back in the West Bank.

On Sunday, a Palestinian man was killed by Israeli army fire along the Gaza-Egypt border, Palestinian officials said. The military said the man was deep inside a no-go zone, close to an Israeli army post along a patrol road near the border, when troops shot him.

Late Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met for nearly five hours with Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian security chief, at a Tel Aviv hotel to work out the details of a West Bank redeployment.

"We talked about handing over responsibility, as has started in the Gaza Strip. We believe that in the next few days they will get responsibility over other towns in the West Bank," Mofaz told Israel Army Radio.

Mofaz also said the Israeli military has changed its rules of engagement. "Wherever the Palestinians operate, and operate effectively, there will be no need for our counter-terrorist activity," he said.

At Sunday's Cabinet meeting, Mofaz was quoted as telling ministers that in the past few days there was a drop in Palestinian attacks of between 70 percent to 75 percent.

It remains unclear to what extent Israel will remove the network of checkpoints it established after the outbreak of fighting to keep out Palestinian militants. The checkpoints have restricted movement and stifled daily life in the West Bank, with travelers often waiting in long lines to enter or leave towns.

Both sides said Mofaz and Dahlan held their talks in a good atmosphere. Dahlan left without speaking to reporters.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia described the meeting as "constructive."

"We hope that when it comes to implementation, it will be positive," Qureia added.

Palestinian officials said they believe restrictions would first be eased in the towns of Jericho and either Ramallah or Bethlehem. Security commanders are to meet Monday to work out the details.

In preparing for a summit, Sharon and Abbas aides are to meet by midweek to work out an agenda, Erekat said. The summit would be the highest-level contacts between Israel and the Palestinians since June 2003 when Sharon and Abbas — then prime minister — launched the road map.

Palestinian officials said they expect a wide-ranging agenda that will include the declaration of a formal truce, a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners and the resumption of peace negotiations.

Israel however appears reluctant to move from security concerns into political matters.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Saturday that Abbas is "very close" to a political agreement with the militants that would include a cease-fire, but added that a formal halt to violence would depend on Israel.

He said Israel must formally accept a cease-fire, withdraw troops from West Bank cities and release some of the 7,000 prisoners it is holding to move forward with the accord.

"There is a temporary cease-fire and we are waiting for an Israeli response," Shaath told The Associated Press by phone from Syria, where he met government officials and the leader of Hamas. "If Israel reciprocated, the cease-fire will turn from a temporary into a permanent one."

Shaath said Egypt, a key mediator, has invited representatives of militant groups to Cairo next week to continue the efforts.