- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian police commanders began preparations yesterday to take control of four West Bank towns by midweek, after top Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed on a security plan for the West Bank.

Transfer of control of the towns would be the first large-scale Israeli move on the ground to acknowledge that violence has decreased significantly since Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas to replace the late Yasser Arafat as their leader Jan. 9.

If the calm holds, Israel promises to move all of its troops back to the positions they held before the latest Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, turning the populated areas of the West Bank back to Palestinian control, and making a major step toward resuming peace talks.

In another significant move, an Israeli official said amnesty would be granted for fugitive Palestinians in the West Bank, ending Israel’s relentless search for dozens of extremists suspected in attacks on Israelis. In more than four years of conflict, dozens of militants have been killed in Israeli raids, and many more have been arrested.

The amnesty would allow Mr. Abbas to fulfill a key campaign pledge that fugitives would be allowed to reintegrate into Palestinian society with no fear of Israeli reprisal.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Jewish settlers and their backers demonstrated last night in Jerusalem against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements and four West Bank outposts this summer.

The protesters demanded a referendum on the plan, but Mr. Sharon has rejected that as a delaying tactic, and he appears to have the political muscle to push the plan through. In all, 8,500 settlers stand to be displaced.

Palestinian officials say Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon have agreed to meet for the first time since 2003, when Mr. Abbas was prime minister. It would be the first meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian leader since 2000, when Mr. Arafat sat down with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Feb. 8 was emerging as the date for the summit, which would be two days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive in the region.

Both sides appear eager to put four years of violence behind them, but the bloodshed has frayed trust. Each side has qualified its declarations about bringing peace by saying that progress depends on the actions of the other side, and it is clear that the atmosphere could sour quickly if there is a serious Palestinian attack or Israeli military strike.

Israel’s Channel 2 TV showed video footage yesterday of an advanced radar tracking system being installed next to Gaza to monitor incoming rockets heading for Sderot, a much-battered Israeli town. The radar is part of a joint Israeli-U.S. system intended to destroy small rockets with laser beams.

Late Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Abbas aide, that the transfer of authority in West Bank towns would begin in the coming days.

A senior Palestinian security official said control of the first four towns — Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Jericho — would be handed over Wednesday.

Israeli soldiers retook Palestinian population centers in 2002 after a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. Since then, Israel has pulled troops out of the towns several times, but it left a tight cordon of checkpoints around them and eventually went back in after violence resumed.

This time, security officials said Israel will dismantle roadblocks around the towns, as well, allowing for more freedom of movement in the West Bank than the Palestinians have had since the violence erupted. Details of the new arrangements will be discussed by Mr. Mofaz and Mr. Dahlan tomorrow or Wednesday, the officials said on the condition of anonymity.

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