Israel Prepares to Hand Over Jericho

Israel (search) is to hand the West Bank town of Jericho (search) over to Palestinian security control this week and another town a few days later, officials said Monday, boosting cooperation as the Palestinian leader headed to Cairo for crucial truce talks with militant factions.

At a meeting late Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) and Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef worked out a compromise over Jericho, according to Israeli officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

Reversing their position, the Palestinians agreed to let Israel keep a roadblock at the entrance to the quiet oasis town in the barren Jordan Valley, as well as control of a village north of Jericho where a main highway passes, the officials said, but Israel pledged to reconsider the matter in a month.

Also, the officials said, Israel agreed to hand over the town of Tulkarem, next to the line between Israel and the West Bank, a few days after Jericho. Israel Radio said the transfer would take place Sunday. That would be followed by Qalqiliya, just south of Tulkarem on the Israel-West Bank line.

According to understandings worked out at the Feb. 8 summit, Israel was to transfer five West Bank towns, but no agreement was reached Monday about the other two — Bethlehem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government.

Not on the list at all are two West Bank cities, Nablus and Hebron, and another town, Jenin. Israel maintains a tight military grip on the three places, charging that they are hotbeds of militant activity and the sources of most of the suicide bombers and other attackers that have plagued Israel during the conflict.

Agreement on Jericho and Tulkarem came before Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was due in Cairo Tuesday for a crucial meeting of Palestinian factions.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared a halt to violence at the Feb. 8 summit, but militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have not formally joined. Islamic Jihad carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Feb. 25, killing five Israelis and rocking the truce.

Abbas hopes for a formal declaration in Cairo by all the Palestinian factions of an end to attacks against Israelis. Egyptian officials have been mediating among the factions.

Sharon cast doubt on the Cairo truce effort. "The cease-fire the Palestinians are working on does not give up the terrorism option and is not a solution, and we cannot agree to that," he said in a statement Monday.

Also Monday, Israeli and Palestinian Cabinet ministers met to discuss release of Palestinian prisoners. No agreements were reached.

Sharon, meanwhile, faced his own internal problems over his "disengagement" plan, taking down all 21 Gaza settlements and four from the West Bank in the summer.

Dozens of Jewish settlers and their backers protested by blocking a main highway at the entrance to Tel Aviv at nightfall Monday, causing a huge traffic jam.

Channel 10 TV used a traffic camera to broadcast live pictures of the demonstration, showing several rows of demonstrators burning tires and standing across the six-lane highway, as cars lined up behind them.

Police arrested 18 demonstrators.

Settlers threaten resistance to the evacuation, the first time Israel has ever moved to take down veteran settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Settlers Council said it had nothing to do with the highway blocking but added, "it is clear that these types of actions are a result" of Sharon's refusal to put the pullout plan to a referendum. Sharon calls that a delaying tactic.

In Gaza itself, a group of 40 Americans, led by a New York State Assemblyman, arrived in Israel Monday in a show of solidarity with Jewish settlers.

"Why can't Jews and Palestinians live together if there is going to be peace?" said the group leader, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat from Brooklyn.

Hikind said this trip was the first of many in which thousands of U.S. Jews would come to Gaza to protest the pullout.

About 8,500 settlers live in Gaza. Sharon said such a small number of Israelis living among more than 1 million hostile Palestinians is untenable.