JERUSALEM — In a concession apparently meant to stitch together a tattered peace process, Israel has agreed to turn over control of the West Bank cities of Kalkilya and Jericho to Palestinian security forces early next week, and to consider pulling soldiers out of Tulkarm and Ramallah in coming weeks.
Israel also may allow Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to visit the Gaza Strip to pay his respects to his sister, who was buried this week in the town of Khan Yunis, Palestinian sources and Israeli television said. It would be the besieged Arafat's first venture beyond the walls of his Ramallah headquarters compound in a year and a half.
Although fragile, preliminary and politically contentious, the deal between Palestinian and Israeli security chiefs marked a major break in a deeply entrenched stalemate. Peace negotiations sputtered this week after two Israelis died in a pair of suicide bombings Tuesday and two Israeli army raids last week in the West Bank left three Palestinian militants, two Palestinian civilians and an Israeli soldier dead.
It was unclear Friday whether the security hand-overs would have any lasting effect -- or even whether the violence would let up long enough for the troop withdrawals to occur.
Israeli officials made it plain that a single Palestinian attack could be enough to break the deal. "It's a test of whether it will work," said Raanan Gissin, an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We're trying to move forward here."
Still, the announcement, which followed the release by Israel on Friday of 73 Palestinian prisoners, was seen as a surprising piece of diplomatic progress and encouraging evidence of some willingness to compromise.
Israeli officials apparently backed away from their vow to maintain a military presence throughout the West Bank cities until the Palestinian Authority made what they considered a serious effort to disarm and jail militants.
Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan pledged to collect illegal weapons, crack down on rocket attacks by militants and make an effort to plug up the smugglers' tunnels used to run guns between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. On Friday, the Palestinian Authority reportedly intercepted $3 million in foreign contributions to the militant group Islamic Jihad.
In the past, to Israel's dismay, Dahlan had insisted that he wouldn't risk a civil war by forcing his security forces to battle Palestinian militants. But quietly, Dahlan has begun rounding up some illegal weapons, a Palestinian security source asserted.
Dahlan and his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who are said to enjoy good personal chemistry, struck the agreement Friday evening after a second day of negotiations. They are scheduled to meet again Sunday to finalize the arrangement for the security hand-over in Kalkilya and Jericho.
Meanwhile, many Palestinians dismissed the promise to hand over control of the two cities as a meaningless gesture. The Israeli army maintains a checkpoint on the road leading into Jericho but generally stays out of the city.
And Kalkilya has been almost totally walled off by the ongoing construction of Israel's so-called security fence. In recent weeks, the West Bank city has been the site of clashes between soldiers, international activists and Palestinians along the line of the fence, which Palestinians say is an Israeli attempt to annex land and control the Palestinian population.
"Kalkilya is particularly touchy," said a Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We don't want it, because we don't want it with the wall. Israel has built a prison, and it wants the Palestinian Authority to be the guards."
Despite the enduring animosity, the security trade-off was apparently spurred along by U.S. pressure. In Washington, Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. diplomat who is the president of the Middle East Institute, said that during Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns' visit to the region this week, U.S. officials continued to press Israel to move ahead with the plan.
Walker said an Israeli departure from Ramallah would be a big step, and for that reason he was skeptical that the Israelis would do it soon. He said a departure from Tulkarm was more likely.
A spokesman for the State Department said he was unable to comment on whether the Bush administration had pressured the Israelis to take the steps. The possibility of Arafat traveling to Gaza to mourn his sister, 77, who died this week in Egypt, hints at an even more dramatic reversal in Israeli policy. Israel previously said that if Arafat left Ramallah, he might not be allowed to return.
Arafat has remained a sticking point in negotiations. Israel accuses Arafat, who remains the elected Palestinian Authority leader, of fueling terrorism and undermining the peace process, and has pondered his exile. A Palestinian source said there was no agreement over Arafat's fate in the event of a troop withdrawal from Ramallah.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.