- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel is deeply skeptical about Egypt’s assurances that the Palestinians are willing to overhaul their security services ahead of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the defense minister said yesterday.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz spoke during a meeting with U.S. envoy William Burns, who is touring the region to mobilize support for the withdrawal plan.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, an 18-year-old Palestinian was killed by army gunfire on the second day of a search for fugitives and bomb labs. The youth was shot on a rooftop as he held a gas canister above his head, the army said. Soldiers fired because they feared he would drop the canister on them, the army said.

Since the start of the large-scale raid, 10 Palestinians have been wounded by gunfire, Palestinian medics said.

Soldiers took over 16 buildings in Nablus’ old city, home to about 20,000 residents and a stronghold of militants. Families in the buildings commandeered by troops were confined to one room per apartment, witnesses said.

The Mofaz-Burns meeting came two days after Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman held separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the terms of Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, to be completed by the end of 2005. Israel refuses to talk directly to the Palestinians, and Egypt has stepped in as mediator.

Egypt has given Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat until September to reform his security services by merging many of the branches and replacing some of the commanders. Mr. Arafat also is expected to relinquish some of his authority.

Mr. Arafat told Mr. Suleiman he was ready to carry out reforms, but there have been no signs of changes on the ground. Mr. Arafat has fiercely resisted security reforms in the past, fearing they would undercut his authority.

Mr. Suleiman reportedly has said he is optimistic the Palestinians would fulfill their obligations. “Don’t be so pessimistic,” the Yediot Ahronot daily quoted Mr. Suleiman as telling Mr. Mofaz.

However, Mr. Mofaz said yesterday that he remains skeptical.

“I have considerable doubt that they [the Palestinians] will really do everything that is required of them — true reform, the merging of the security branches, replacing security chiefs, dismantling the terror infrastructure,” he said at the start of his meeting with Mr. Burns in Tel Aviv.

Under the Egyptian plan, Palestinian militant groups would gather in Cairo in September for a cease-fire declaration. Within eight months, Palestinian security forces would begin collecting illegal weapons.

Mr. Mofaz said Israel welcomes Egypt’s involvement, “but the test is in the results.”

On Thursday, Mideast envoys from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — met in Cairo to discuss the Gaza withdrawal and how to tie into the “road map” peace plan. The road map, backed by the Quartet, envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.

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