- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

TEL AVIV — Israel and Palestinian officials took part in two days of unannounced talks near London on Friday and Saturday to explore proposals that would transform Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip into new momentum for peace talks, said a participant in the discussions.

The back-channel discussions focused on using the pullback to boost the Gaza Strip’s sagging economy, such as transferring ownership of the farms of Jewish settlers to the Palestinians and upgrading housing for residents of the refugee camps in the coastal strip. The talks also explored ways to improve collaboration in preventing terrorist attacks.

“The purpose of the meeting was to look for innovative ways to support the disengagement process and to take advantage of the opportunity in order to take the peace process further beyond the disengagement,” the participant said. “There was a very good discussion.”

The disengagement talks were held just days after an international conference in London hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair aimed at helping the Palestinian Authority recover after 4 years of fighting.

Israel declined to send any of its officials to the conference, but the secret weekend talks included “senior” officials from both sides, who joined academics and representatives of private relief organizations.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to restore security control of West Bank towns to the Palestinian police force had been suspended for three weeks before the London contacts.

But news agencies reported yesterday that Israel has decided to hand over the city of Tulkarem to Palestinian control this week, and a spokeswoman said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz would meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week.

Four other cities are slated to be handed over under a promise made to the Palestinians on the eve of a Feb. 8 peace summit at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pullback initiative calls for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank starting in July, Israel has expressed interest in coordinating the implementation of the evacuation.

An orderly exit of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip would create an impression among the Israeli public that the evacuation is a step on the road to peace rather than a humiliating defeat.

During the weekend talks near London, Israelis and Palestinians discussed inviting third-party countries and organizations to play a role in providing economic and security aid in the Gaza Strip after the pullback.

Israel is reluctant to leave any settler buildings standing in Gaza when it leaves for fear that they could be used by militants for propaganda or terrorism. But to destroy all of them could leave an image in the press of a “scorched earth” policy toward the Palestinians.

Israel wants to reach a compromise that would preserve at least some of the buildings, but the participant in the London talks said time “is running out.”

Last week, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres discussed economic dimensions of the withdrawal with Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza Strip security chief. The two are trying to find donors to help purchase 1,000 acres of agricultural greenhouses.

Yoram Dori, a spokesman for Mr. Peres, said the greenhouse businesses could support about 20,000 Palestinian families if they are transferred with the infrastructure intact.

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