JERUSALEM – Israel plans to transfer the volatile West Bank town of Jenin (search) to Palestinian control to try to ensure calm when Israel withdraws from nearby settlements this summer, officials said Wednesday, reflecting concern that Palestinian militants might launch attacks during the pullout.
Israeli officials said no timetable was set for the transfer and urged the Palestinian Authority (search) to disarm militants in the town first.
Jenin is in the northern West Bank (search), where Israel plans to evacuate the four settlements as part of its "disengagement" plan, which includes removing all 21 settlements from the Gaza Strip (search).
Unlike Gaza, where Israel plans to end its permanent military presence along with removing the settlements, Israel has made no pledge to pull forces out of the northern West Bank. Israel is refurbishing a main military base on the outskirts of Jenin, where soldiers operating roadblocks and patrols are stationed.
Handing over Jenin would remove a constant source of friction and violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. It also would give Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' (search) forces a chance to wrest control of the town and its adjacent refugee camp from gangs of armed militants.
The two sides discussed the Jenin handover during a security coordination meeting Tuesday night, Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said. From a position in Jenin, Palestinian police would be better able to keep militants and looters from taking over the settlements once Israel withdraws.
Israeli security officials confirmed the Jenin handover was discussed at the meeting but said no timetable was set. Israel wants the Palestinians to disarm more than 100 armed fugitives in the town before any handover.
Jenin was not on the list of five towns to be transferred to Palestinian control under terms of the cease-fire declared Feb. 8 at a summit between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search). Israel withdrew its forces from two of the towns, Tulkarem and Jericho, but halted the process, charging that Palestinian police were not disarming militants in the towns under its control. Palestinians said they were putting the militants in security forces instead.
Abbas and Sharon are expected to discuss the transfer of Palestinian towns at a June 21 summit.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a key mediator in the conflict, met Wednesday with Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub and Israeli leaders.
Suleiman discussed the planned pullout with Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Israeli officials said Suleiman told them completion of the withdrawal would offer a good opportunity for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to visit Israel. Egypt and Israel have a peace treaty, but Mubarak has rarely visited.
Rajoub said he and Suleiman discussed the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, the delayed implementation of the truce agreements and Palestinian concerns that Israel would not fully leave Gaza.
U.S. officials were also expected to arrive in the region Wednesday and Thursday to help prepare for a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later this week.
In a related development Wednesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) urged the Palestinian security forces to halt the lawlessness plaguing Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"It is up to the Palestinian security forces to shoulder their responsibilities, and if this government is incapable of putting an end to the chaos, it must resign and allow another one to take its place," Qureia told students at a graduation ceremony at An Najah University in Nablus, a West Bank city known as a militant hotbed.
Hours later, a group of armed militants raided Qureia's empty vacation home in Jericho, demanding jobs in the security forces, officials said. They left after an hour.
Palestinian officials said Interior Minister Nasser Yousef gave orders to arrest those who attacked Qureia's house, but local Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades leader Abdullah Qaraweh said his men would not give up quietly.
"Our rifles are in our hands and we will open fire at anyone trying to arrest us," he said.
Israeli security officials said Wednesday they arrested an unspecified number of Palestinians from Nablus, including eight between the ages of 15 and 17, suspected of planning bomb attacks in Israel. The eight are affiliated with Abbas' Fatah party, the officials said.
One of the young men had already made a "martyr's video" explaining his actions to be publicized after the attack, officials said.