GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Israeli military delivered the bodies of 15 militants to the Palestinians for burial Monday, a handover celebrated in Gaza as the first real achievement of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), who is trying to prevent fickle militants from straying from a fragile truce.
This latest dividend of improved relations between Israel and the Palestinians came as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said he would ask the Cabinet next week to formally serve notice of the government's intention to withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements.
The planned pullout has created a politically charged atmosphere in Israel, and prominent Israeli politicians on Monday called for detaining Jewish extremists without trial or charges in response to a wave of threats against government ministers who support the withdrawal.
Tens of thousands of Gazans poured into the streets as 15 ambulances carrying the bodies of the militants rolled into Gaza City's main square, escorted by Palestinian security. Each ambulance had the name of the dead man inside on the windshield.
Dozens of armed men stood in the square, raising the banners of their factions and saluting the bodies. The Palestinian police band played the national anthem in the background.
The militants were killed in attacks on Israeli army outposts in Gaza and other Israeli targets in the past two years. It was not clear why Israel had kept their remains.
The bodies were released a day after Israel's Cabinet approved the names of 500 Palestinian prisoners to be freed, and security commanders discussed the handover of the West Bank town of Jericho to Palestinian control. All three measures are part of a package of overtures agreed on last week at a summit where Sharon and Abbas declared a cessation of 4½ years of hostilities.
Abbas told The New York Times the war with Israel is, in effect, over, and that Sharon is speaking "a different language" to the Palestinians. He also spoke of a new beginning for the region, and said he has reined in Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search) militants following a Hamas attack on Jewish settlements in Gaza after the summit.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was to meet later Monday with Sharon aide Dov Weisglass to discuss the release of additional Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas told the Times that "prisoners, prisoners are our priority, and we told everyone about it." A generous release of prisoners would help stabilize the volatile situation, he said.
Sharon has said he would consider exceptions to Israel's ban on freeing prisoners involved in killing Israelis.
Erekat, who lives in Jericho, said he expects the Israeli army roadblocks surrounding the town to be removed Tuesday or Wednesday. Erekat said the two sides might even resume joint security patrols.
Israel barred civilians from entering West Bank towns after Israeli-Palestinian fighting broke out in September 2000. Erekat said he would ask Israeli officials to lift the ban, at least for Jericho, which depends on tourism.
He said he did not know when the Oasis Casino in Jericho, once the main employer in town and a major attraction for Israeli gamblers, would reopen. The casino was closed a month after the fighting started.
Four other West Bank towns, including Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, are to be transferred to Palestinian control over the next two weeks.
Sharon plans a unilateral evacuation of all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank this summer. He told legislators Monday that he would ask the Cabinet Sunday to hold a procedural vote approving the pullout, which Cabinet authorized in principle several months ago.
The vote is necessary because the Justice Ministry has said the settlers must be given five months' notice of the government's intent to evacuate them. The Cabinet will be asked later to vote on each of the withdrawal's four phases as they come up, but a timetable for those votes hasn't been released.
Sharon told members of his Likud Party (search) at a weekly meeting Monday that Israel's current dialogue with the Palestinians includes the disengagement.
"If we are fired upon during the withdrawal from Gaza, the response will be harsh," he said.
Jewish settler leaders are making a last-ditch effort to persuade Sharon to hold a national referendum on the Gaza pullout, but Sharon has rejected their demands.
"Nobody's around forever, he told the Likud caucus meeting Monday. "I want to sort these things out while I'm still here."
Some settlers and other members of Israel's extreme right have threatened to use violence to try to block the withdrawal — threats that aren't taken lightly after an extremist opponent of peace concessions assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Some lawmakers who support the pullout have recently received abusive mail from extremists. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz received a meat hook in the mail; a letter to a female member of Sharon's Likud party threatened "gang rape."
Sharon told the party meeting that one leaflet in circulation threatened to dig up his late wife, Lily. The family has hired guards for the grave, he said.
President Moshe Katsav warned things were "liable to spiral out of control," and said he considered it legitimate to hold extremists without trial or charges — a procedure known as administrative detention - when democracy is in jeopardy.
Opposition leader Joseph Lapid said Israel has "reached the point where the security establishment is more afraid of Jews than of Palestinian terrorists."