TULKAREM, West Bank – Dozens of Palestinian fugitives reunited with their families Tuesday, ending years on the run, after Israeli troops returned this West Bank town to Palestinian control and promised to stop chasing the men.
Tulkarem (search) was the second of five Palestinian towns to be handed over to Palestinian control, a sign that Mideast peacemaking is inching forward. However, the handover, sealed by a ceremonial handshake between Palestinian and Israeli field commanders, was seen by residents as only a small step on the road to peace.
But for militants, especially those sought by Israeli security, it meant they can finally come out of hiding. During four years of violence, Israeli forces have made hundreds of forays into Palestinian towns and villages, arresting thousands of suspects — and killed dozens of others in airstrikes.
"For the first time in 2 1/2 years, I feel at ease," said Hosni Abu Zgheib, 30, of the violent Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), loosely affiliated with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah (search) Party.
Abu Zgheib, a father of three, said he spent little time at home in the last two years, constantly moving from one safe house to another and making occasional visits to see his daughters.
Lounging in the living room of another Aqsa gunman Tuesday, drinking coffee and chain smoking with colleagues, Abu Zgheib, a former Palestinian policemen, said he welcomed the change.
"Tonight is the first night I'll sleep at home without worrying the army is going to come banging on my door," he said.
At a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) declared an end to more than four years of bloodshed. As part of the agreement, Israel agreed to stop killing and arresting wanted militants.
Israel also promised to transfer control of five West Bank towns to the Palestinian Authority. After lengthy negotiations, Israel handed over Jericho last week. Tulkarem, located in the northern West Bank along the 1949 cease-fire line that divides Israel from the West Bank, was the second town transferred.
Like Jericho, however, the transfer was delayed by disagreements. Israel cited security concerns for its insistence on holding on to roadblocks and some territory, while the Palestinians accused Israel of intentionally frustrating the process.
Difficulties over the first two towns could be an indication of potential disputes ahead. The next town to be handed over is Qalqiliya, which like Tulkarem is located on the line between Israel and the West Bank. Bethlehem is next, to be followed by Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government.
As news of Tulkarem's handover, which began Monday night, spread through town, dozens of gunmen took to the streets to fire their weapons in the air in celebration. Palestinian police did not intervene.
Tulkarem store owner Nashat Salem said "a little more organization" is the only real benefit from the handover. "We won't have the chaos in the streets that we have today ... but on the path to peace, I'm not so sure we're going anywhere," he said.
In the first stage, Salem said, the militants gain the most because they can come out of hiding. But their freedom may not last unless they follow new rules.
Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef issued a directive this week, restricting weapons in the hands of the militants. Also, if they violate the truce, they are likely to be pursued by both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The militants say they are committed to the cease-fire, at least for now.
"I've been home only four times in four years," said Mohammed Zitawi, 28, of Al Aqsa. "For now, I'm not interested in fighting, and if Israel sticks to its word, I will personally hand in my gun to the Palestinian Authority. It's time to go back to living a more normal life."