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Israel Will Leave Gaza, Bethlehem

Security in those areas is to be turned over to the tattered Palestinian forces. Hamas militants agree to a three-month halt in attacks.

June 28, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reached an agreement Friday calling for Israeli troops to pull out of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a move that would leave the war-scarred territories in the hands of the battered Palestinian security forces.

After weeks of delay and wrangling, Palestinian Authority security chief Mohammed Dahlan and Amos Gilad, Israel's coordinator in the Palestinian territories, agreed that Israeli soldiers could begin to withdraw early next week, Palestinian officials and Israeli television said.

In an intertwined move, leaders of the militant group Hamas said they had agreed among themselves to a three-month cease-fire and would formally announce it in coming days.

Two other groups, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, have said they planned to sign on to the declaration forswearing attacks on Israeli civilians, soldiers and settlers both within Israel and in the Palestinian territories.

Friday's sudden burst of diplomatic progress came amid pressure from the United States and despite continuing bloodshed. Hours before the security agreement, four Palestinians and an Israeli soldier died in an Israeli raid in the Gaza Strip.

In a push from Washington to invigorate the latest peace plan, known as the road map, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice is to meet this weekend with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli officials.

"There are still a few nagging points," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority's foreign minister.

"We hope she'll use her influence to get us through this stage."

The truce is fragile, and both sides are edgy. Details of the Bethlehem pullout have yet to be worked out, a Palestinian security source said.

Some key Palestinian demands, including the release of prisoners and the softening of travel restrictions, remain in limbo.

Final details of the hand-over are to be hashed out in meetings Sunday in Gaza and Bethlehem, the source said.

Both sides worried that they were stepping into a trap: Many Palestinians fear that putting security responsibility on the backs of weakened Palestinian forces is a recipe for failure; Israelis dread easing the military clampdown that has at least partially insulated them from hundreds of would-be attackers.

"We have known such respites in the past," analyst Nahum Barnea wrote in Friday's edition of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "They always ended in a mutual bloodletting."

Still, the shift to Palestinian administration promises the strongest progress in 33 months of bloodshed and new freedom for the 1.2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip's cramped seaside slums and villages.

The Gaza plan would permit Palestinians to travel freely at any hour along Gaza's main north-south road, which has degenerated into an obstacle course of tank-torn pavement and army checkpoints.

The road was a sticking point in the negotiations, because it runs alongside a Jewish settlement, and Israel feared that Palestinian passersby could endanger the settlers. As a compromise, Israel decided to build a bypass road for Palestinians, negotiators said.

"In other words, 1 million Palestinians have to go around and be inconvenienced by 380 settlers," said a Palestinian official familiar with the negotiations. Along roads used by Israeli settlers, the two sides will cooperate on security, he said.

Israel has agreed to stop army raids and house demolitions in Gaza and to curb its controversial campaign of assassinating militants, a Palestinian security source said.

However, Israel still claims the right to launch attacks against "ticking bombs," or radicals it considers an immediate threat. But Palestinian forces will be alerted in advance and given the chance to prevent the radical's attack.

Under the agreement, Palestinian leaders must block all attacks against Israel, including the makeshift rockets fired almost daily from Gaza. The Palestinian leadership will have to answer for any attacks against Israel that come from areas under Palestinian control.

Since Abbas first met in May with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel has been pushing the Palestinians to take over security in parts of Gaza.

But Palestinian leaders balked at cracking down on Palestinian radicals, especially members of the strong and popular Hamas. Instead, Abbas spent weeks talking the militants into a cease-fire -- to the annoyance of his Israeli counterparts, who complained that Hamas had hijacked the peace process.

"Will [the Palestinians] control the weapons? If there are armed groups going around the land doing whatever they like, there is no good faith, no agreement and it won't hold," said former Israeli lawmaker and defense expert Dan Meridor, a senior member of Sharon's Likud Party.

"This should be a temporary thing, not a steady state."

Many Israelis maintain that there can be no calm until the security forces strip the militants of their guns, lock their leaders in jail and put a stop to all incitement.

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