Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Israel may pull out of areas bordering Egypt

CONCESSIONS Tel Aviv has agreed in principle to pull troops off a road along the Gaza-Egypt border as part of a new era of cooperation with the Palestinian leadership


Israel has agreed in principle to evacuate a road along the Gaza-Egypt border that has been a major flashpoint of violence in recent years, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said after a Palestinian official warned that continued Israeli military patrols there would invite attacks.

Israeli officials said in the past that soldiers would need to remain in the Philadelphi corridor after the planned Gaza Strip pullout this summer to prevent weapons smuggling, but a new spirit of cooperation in the region following last month's election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian leader could make a pullback more palatable.

Also Friday, the Haaretz daily newspaper published a proposed revision to the route of Israel's separation barrier that runs closer to Israel's boundary with the West Bank but also puts two major West Bank settlement blocs on the Israeli side of the barrier. Israel's Cabinet is scheduled to vote on the new route today. The Cabinet was also expected to approve Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. Under the Cabinet resolution, the most isolated Gaza settlements -- Netzarim, Morag and Kfar Darom -- would be evacuated first, followed by four northern West Bank settlements, then the main southern Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif and finally three northern Gaza settlements.

The pullout will take three months, beginning in July, with separate Cabinet votes on each of the four phases.

Sharon has demanded the Palestinians halt all attacks during the pullout, and Mohammed Dahlan, an Abbas security adviser, told Israel Radio on Friday that the withdrawal would not take place under Palestinian fire.

But Dahlan also called on Israel to evacuate the Philadelphi road, saying it could turn into another Chebaa Farms, a disputed area on the Israel-Lebanon border where Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas periodically attack Israeli soldiers.

Government legal experts have indicated Israel would need to leave the corridor as part of the pullout if it wanted to officially end its occupation of Gaza under international law. But some officials worried that leaving the Philadelphi road would allow militants to increase weapons smuggling and even bring in advanced missiles to attack Israel.

The atmosphere has improved, however, with Abbas' election and the new cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

Peres, when asked if a handover of the road had been agreed to in principle, told Israel Radio: "Yes, but in principle takes less time than in practice."

"I think we are trying to find a solution for it that would allow freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza. Otherwise, they will be closed in from all sides," he said.

Peres said any solution would have to be mediated with Egypt, which has offered to send 750 border guards to the area to prevent weapons smuggling. The Philadelphi road has been perhaps the most volatile strip of land during the past four years of violence. Israel, which has uncovered a series of weapons smuggling tunnels running under the border, guards the corridor with watchtowers armed with heavy machine guns and vehicle patrols.

Palestinian gunmen often attack Israeli positions from the Rafah refugee camp, adjacent to the road. The army has responded by demolishing rows of hundreds of houses near the road.

Peres, leader of the dovish Labor Party, also said he would support the new separation barrier route, which was redrawn after Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the previous route was needlessly disruptive to Palestinians' lives.

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