Israel to Hand Over Three West Bank Towns

The final route of Israel's separation barrier around Jerusalem will encompass large areas claimed by the Palestinians, including their intended capital and the biggest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Israeli officials confirmed Monday.

The route would also place a holy site in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem (search) on the Israeli side of the barrier, while leaving a Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem encircled by a separate fence, the officials said.

Late Monday, Israeli and Palestinian Cabinet ministers agreed again on a handover of the West Bank town of Jericho (search) to Palestinian security control. Earlier agreements fell through over details about roadblocks.

Israeli officials said the handover is set for Wednesday, to be followed two or three days later by Tulkarem (search), then Qalqiliya (search). Two other towns are to be transferred to Palestinian control as well — Bethlehem and Ramallah — but those were not agreed on at Monday's meeting between Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, was optimistic about efforts to get peace talks back on track, saying "the positive developments here give us a chance to re-energize the process."

Annan spoke after meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Palestinian militants were to begin talks Tuesday in Cairo on formalizing an unofficial truce with Israel.

Israel began building the barrier in the West Bank two years ago, saying it was needed to keep out Palestinian attackers. Palestinians say the structure, which dips into the West Bank, is an attempt by Israel to impose a border without waiting for a peace deal.

The section around Jerusalem is especially sensitive. The Palestinians hope to establish their capital in east Jerusalem, a traditional Arab commercial, religious and social center. Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, claims all the city as its capital.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened a meeting of senior Cabinet ministers late Sunday to discuss the route of the barrier, which got Cabinet approval last month.

Under the plan, the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, which lies five miles east of Jerusalem, would be on the Israeli side of the barrier, Israeli officials said. About 30,000 Israelis live in Maaleh Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement.

"Does anyone have even the slightest doubt that Maaleh Adumim is an integral part of Israel?" said Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, who heads a ministerial committee on the Jerusalem barrier.

A senior Israeli official said the committee is planning 11 crossings to allow access from the West Bank.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said construction is to be completed by year's end and no major changes in the route are expected. A number of legal challenges filed by Palestinian villagers are pending in Israeli courts.

The Palestinian refugee camp of Shuafat, which straddles the Jerusalem municipal boundary, will remain on the Israeli side of the barrier. It will be encircled by a separate fence, with a crossing into the city.

The bustling streets of Shuafat — sandwiched between two Jewish neighborhoods — were buzzing with speculation Monday about the planned fence.

"Jerusalem is considered to this camp like the heart to the body," said Mohammed Omar, a 50-year-old teacher in Shuafat. "All their (residents') activities are in Jerusalem."

According to the United Nations, 11,250 people live in the camp, a maze of narrow, dusty streets and densely packed gray concrete buildings. Israeli officials said the camp has been used as a launching point by Palestinian attackers, and the fence is needed for security.

In Bethlehem, the barrier will divide Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine, from the rest of the city. Concrete slabs already have virtually cut off Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the route could destroy peace efforts. "This prejudges and prejudices the outcome of permanent status negotiations," he said.

Last year, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution against the barrier and the world court said in an advisory ruling that the barrier is illegal and must be torn down.

Annan also said the United Nations is establishing a register of damages to Palestinian property and claims against Israel resulting from the barrier construction.

As Annan spoke, Palestinian policemen restrained hundreds of demonstrators outside the government compound. The protesters carried signs reading "Bring down the wall," and scuffled with policemen.

Support among Palestinians for suicide bombings has dropped sharply in the past six months, according to a poll published Monday.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they approved of last month's bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis, compared to 77 percent who supported an August bus bombing that killed 16 Israelis in the town of Beersheba. The poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research questioned 1,319 Palestinian adults and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Abbas heads next to Egypt for talks with the Palestinian militant groups that he expects to produce a formal cease-fire declaration ending four years of fighting with Israel. An informal truce has been in place since a Feb. 8 summit between Abbas and Sharon.