Israelis, Palestinians Disagree Over Handover

Israeli and Palestinian commanders met Sunday evening to work out the last details of a handover of the West Bank town of Tulkarem (search) to Palestinian control, but the session ended without agreement, a new hitch for fledgling peace efforts between the two sides.

Earlier, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the handover was to take place on Monday, making it the second of five West Bank (search) towns to be transferred to Palestinian control. Palestinian officials said the two sides would reconvene Monday for further talks.

The handovers were part of a truce announced at a summit last month in Egypt by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and reinforced last week at a meeting of Palestinian factions in Cairo.

Violence has dropped considerably in the last five weeks, but two incidents on Sunday underlined the fragility of the situation.

Palestinians opened fire on Israeli police and soldiers searching for stolen cars in the Amari refugee camp next to the West Bank city of Ramallah, the military said, wounding two, one critically.

Several hours later, a Palestinian man was shot and critically wounded by an Israeli border policeman in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Border Police spokesman Oren Goanias said the Palestinian tried to steal a weapon from a border policeman.

The violence threatened to upset last week's truce declaration by Palestinian militants. The militants pledged to halt attacks on Israel for the rest of the year, in an important boost for Abbas as he tries to resume peace talks.

But Hamas and Islamic Jihad conditioned their support on Israel's stopping all military operations against the Palestinians. Israel has promised to honor the truce if quiet continues.

Despite the incidents, talks about the handover of Tulkarem proceeded. Last week Israel turned over the isolated desert oasis of Jericho to the Palestinians, the first of five towns to revert to Palestinian control under the Feb. 8 summit understandings.

"We handed Jericho over last week and tomorrow it is expected that Tulkarem will be transferred to Palestinian responsibility," Mofaz told reporters during a stop at an army base. He said plans were underway to transfer a third town, Qalqiliya.

However, Palestinian officials said, the Sunday talks failed to produce an agreement. As with Jericho, the main issues concerned control over surrounding territory and removal of Israeli roadblocks.

Tulkarem is on the line between the West Bank and Israel opposite Israel's narrowest section — just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Israel's coast on the Mediterranean Sea. Before Israel erected a section of its contentious separation barrier around three sides of the town, several suicide bombers infiltrated into the nearby Israeli city of Netanya and blew themselves up, killing dozens.

On Feb. 25 a suicide bomber from the Tulkarem area exploded in Tel Aviv, killing five Israelis, in the most serious breach of the truce, but there is no evidence that he crossed a finished section of the barrier, which is only one-third complete.

Palestinians want control of all seven roads leading into Tulkarem, a regional market hub, officials said before the Sunday security meeting. However, the Israel was balking about two of the roads, officials on both sides said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Israeli officials said the two roads lead to towns where those involved in the Tel Aviv bombing came from.

Similar disputes held up the Jericho handover for several days.

In another development, Israel Radio reported late Sunday that Mofaz approved construction of 3,500 housing units in and around the West Bank's largest settlement, Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem.

Defense officials said they were aware of the plan but could not confirm that Mofaz had signed it.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Sunday that aerial photos show considerable construction in veteran Israeli settlements in the West Bank, violating Israel's commitment to stop such building under terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The report said pictures taken for the Defense Ministry showed that between the summer of 2004 and early 2005 there was major construction, including in the large settlements of Maale Adumim, Ariel and the Gush Etzion bloc.

The report said Mofaz ordered the photographs at the request of former chief state prosecutor Talia Sasson, who recently completed a report on unauthorized Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank.

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman confirmed efforts are underway to expand the ministry's knowledge of settlement construction in the West Bank.

Sasson's report was published earlier this month. It said Israeli governments have helped build and expand 105 illegal West Bank settlement outposts in a flagrant violation of official policy and promises to the United States — confirming long-standing complaints by the Palestinians.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said the United States expected Israel to abide by its road map commitments.