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Israel plans to transfer two West Bank cities to control of Pal
JERUSALEM -- Israel announced on Friday it would transfer two more West Bank cities to Palestinian control and shut down three major roadblocks, moving ahead cautiously with a U.S.-backed peace plan as the Palestinian premier met with President Bush in Washington.
The statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said decisions on which cities would be handed over and the timing of the transfers would be taken next week in a meeting between the Israeli defense minister and the Palestinian security chief.
Further handovers of cities and dismantling of roadblocks are among moves the Palestinian Authority has been demanding as part of implementing the "road map" peace blueprint. So far, Israel has pulled troops out of parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
But since those withdrawals, progress has been stalled on the peace plan, which calls for an end to violence and Palestinian statehood by 2005, despite a temporary truce declared by Palestinian militants on June 29 that has greatly reduced the bloodshed of the previous 33 months.
Sporadic violence, however, has persisted.
4-year-old boy killed
An Israeli soldier opened fire on a truck on the West Bank on Friday, killing a 4-year-old boy and wounding two other children. The Israeli army said the shooting was accidental.
Also Friday, police searching for missing Israeli soldier Oleg Shaichat said he had most likely been kidnapped or killed by militants. Shaichat has been missing since Monday, and his family issued a plea for his release on Friday.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met with Bush at the White House on Friday in hopes of getting the Americans to pressure the Israelis to move more quickly on the peace plan.
Sharon meets Bush in Washington on Tuesday, and Bush told reporters in a joint news conference with Abbas that he welcomed the moves announced by Sharon's office.
"Like Prime Minister Abbas, Prime Minister Sharon is demonstrating that he's a partner committed to reaching a peace settlement," Bush said.
Abbas, however, called the steps taken by Israel so far "hesitant."
"The new era of peace requires the courageous logic of peace, not the suspicious logic of conflict," Abbas said.
Abbas is under heavy political pressure to win Israeli concessions as a way of generating Palestinian public support for the peace plan and bolstering his own flagging political backing.
In addition to handing over two cities, Sharon's office said Israel would take down three major roadblocks, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered defense forces to reevaluate the need for other roadblocks.
Israel erected the roadblocks throughout the West Bank as part of its effort to stop suicide bombers and other attackers, but Palestinians say the roadblocks are demeaning and greatly hinder the freedom of movement of ordinary people while determined attackers find ways around them anyway.
The statement, however, did not break new ground on an issue that Palestinians have said is a top priority: a mass release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails for alleged involvement in terrorism.
Israel has agreed to free several hundred of the 7,700 Palestinians it holds, but has not yet committed to releasing thousands, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. Israel argues that Abbas' government needs to begin disarming militants responsible for attacks on Israelis as a condition for real progress on the peace plan.
Sharon's office said 250 prisoners had been let go so far, and that a ministerial committee on the releases would meet in early August to consider widening the category of inmates eligible. The statement said the move "will enable the release of hundreds more," though Israel refused to free any prisoners directly involved in attacks on Israelis.
Israel also said it would continue to evacuate illegal settler outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and "consider ways to minimize hardship" caused by Israel's construction of a security fence near the border with the West Bank. Palestinians have called for dismantlement of the outposts and an end to construction of the fence.
In addition, the statement said Israel would open a road linking Nablus and Jenin and transfer 72 million shekels (US$16 million) of frozen Palestinian assets to the Palestinian Authority.
Despite the cease-fire, Israeli security forces remained tense as Palestinians have voiced growing impatience over the slow pace of progress on the road map.
Hundreds of Israeli police, fearing unrest after Muslim prayers, guarded entrances Friday to Jerusalem's Old City and stopped young men from entering the Al Aqsa Mosque. The area of the mosque, one of the holiest for Jews and Muslims, has been the site of clashes in the past.
Still, both Palestinian and Israeli officials expressed optimism about the peace process. In an interview broadcast Friday on NBC's "Today" program, Abbas said from Washington that he believed the plan could work.
"If we look at public opinion polls among both peoples we find that they indeed want peace," he said.
Mofaz was quoted Friday as saying in an interview with Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot that the militants' cease-fire was stabilizing.
"The light can be seen at the end of the tunnel, and we should concentrate on that light," Mofaz was quoted as saying.