EREZ CROSSING, Israel – Israel will turn over two West Bank towns to Palestinian control in the coming days, Israel's defense minister announced Tuesday after meeting the Palestinian leader, but disagreements remained over how much land around the towns would be transferred.
The two-hour meeting at the main crossing point between Gaza and Israel was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' (search) first with an Israeli leader since a Feb. 8 summit, when he and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) declared a truce to end four years of bloodshed. Transferring control of five West Bank towns was part of the truce package.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) said Israel would hand over control of Tulkarem and Jericho in the coming days, but he did not say exactly when, which would be first, or how much territory would be included — reflecting disagreements with the Palestinians.
"In the next few days we will apparently transfer control over two ... towns, after a meeting of security officers" on Wednesday, Mofaz said. "We are talking about Tulkarem and Jericho."
Abbas said not only the towns could be involved. "We are not talking about towns, but also surrounding areas," he said. "If there are [Israeli] checkpoints, they must be removed."
Israeli roadblocks are a key point for the Palestinians. Dozens of barriers have limited movement in and out of the towns, strangling social and economic life. Israel insists they are necessary for security.
Officials said Israel preferred to hand over Jericho first, while the Palestinians were holding out for Tulkarem.
Tulkarem is on the 1949 cease-fire line that marks the West Bank at Israel's narrowest point — 10 miles from the city of Netanya on the Mediterranean Sea.
Jericho, in contrast, is an isolated oasis in the barren Jordan River Valley, far from Israeli population centers. Previous West Bank transfers of authority have started with Jericho, including the first one in 1994, when Yasser Arafat took control. Arafat died Nov. 11.
Under terms of interim peace accords in the mid-90s, Palestinians took control of West Bank population centers. However, after a series of grisly bombings, Israeli forces went back into the towns in 2002. Since then, there have been several unsuccessful truces and handovers, but Israel always maintained roadblocks at the outskirts of the towns, effectively quarantining them.
This transfer is to be different, a senior Israeli official said before the meeting. Israel would pull out of areas around the towns, removing main roadblocks. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the test would be whether Palestinian security, once in control of the areas, would stop militants from carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Mofaz said committees of security officials would discuss these issues, starting Wednesday, insisting that Palestinians must crack down on violent groups.
At the Feb. 8 summit in Egypt, the two sides agreed that Israel would hand over Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah — the seat of the Palestinian government — as well as Jericho and Tulkarem.
Also Tuesday, the Israeli army commander, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, gave a glimpse of Israel's long-range goals when he addressed a security conference in Tel Aviv. He said Israel aimed to phase out Palestinian employment, in keeping with Sharon's overall goal of "disengagement" between Israel and the Palestinians.
In that framework, Israel plans to pull out of Gaza and evacuate four settlements from the northern West Bank in the summer and is building a barrier along the West Bank.
"Our goal is to stop any kind of Palestinian working in Israel" by 2008, Yaalon said in halting English. "This is our policy, this is our political directive and this is because of what has happened here over the last four and a half years."
Before the outbreak of violence in 2000, more than 150,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, most in menial jobs.
Now the number of work permits is just a few thousand, and the loss of income has contributed to a downward economic spiral in the Palestinian areas, leading to widespread poverty.
World Bank officials said that both Israel and the Palestinians were interested in ending their co-dependancy, but 2008 was too soon to be practical.