Wed, Feb 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Dispute delays Jericho handover

WITHDRAWAL The quiet West Bank town was to be the first to revert to Palestinian control, but officials were unable to agree on how much territory would go with it


Handover of the West Bank town of Jericho to Palestinian control was delayed by last-minute disagreements, a setback to implementation of a truce declared a week ago in a gala summit meeting, aiming at ending four years of Mideast bloodshed.

Jericho, a quiet oasis in the Jordan River valley, is to be the first of five towns to revert to Palestinian control, but in meetings on Monday, officials were unable to agree on how much territory the Palestinians would receive and where the new Israeli roadblocks would be placed, officials on both sides said.

Meanwhile, Israel's leaders grappled with opposition to a plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, returning to the West Bank after talks with militant groups in Gaza, said he hoped to present a new Cabinet in a day or two.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, who lives in Jericho and took part in some of the unsuccessful transfer talks, told reporters that most of the problems were resolved, and the others required decisions from the Israeli defense establishment.

It was expected that Palestinians would regain control of Jericho yesterday. Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no further meetings were scheduled.

Four years of Palestinian-Israeli confrontations have largely bypassed Jericho, isolated from the rest of the West Bank population centers. Israeli forces rarely enter the town, but soldiers at roadblocks control entry and exit.

The Palestinians want the Israeli presence moved far away from the town of 20,000, but Israel is balking. The Palestinians want control of the small town of Ouja, 8km north of Jericho, as part of the deal.

According to terms of the truce announced at a summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Israel is to hand over five towns, starting with Jericho and continuing with Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and finally Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government.

Unlike previous withdrawals, Israel is also supposed to remove roadblocks around the towns, allowing for more freedom of movement. During the four years of violence, Israel has erected dozens of roadblocks in the West Bank, explaining that they are necessary for security, but crippling Palestinian society and economic life as well.

Except for a large-scale violation on Thursday, when Hamas militants fired dozens of mortars and rockets at Jewish settlements after soldiers killed a Palestinian, the truce declared last Tuesday has held.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Monday that his representatives were discussing the planned evacuation with Palestinian officials. He said he would ask his Cabinet to vote on Sunday to endorse the pullout, authorized in principle several months ago.

The procedural vote is necessary because the Justice Ministry ruled that Jewish settlers must be given five months' notice. The Cabinet will be asked later to vote on each of the withdrawal's four phases as they come up. Sharon faced his own opposition, however, and Cabinet ministers have received death threats from extremists over the pullout plan.

Sharon told a meeting of members of parliament from his Likud Party that one leaflet in circulation carried a threat to dig up his late wife, Lily, from her grave. The family has hired guards for the grave, he said.

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