Israel balks on roadblock removal

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestinians will press on with talks on the handover of West Bank towns despite disagreements over Israeli roadblocks and the threat of militant attacks, officials said.

Talks bogged down Sunday because the Palestinians demanded that Israel dismantle roadblocks around the four towns. The Israeli side, meanwhile, said the Palestinians must guarantee they will control militants who could resume attacks.

Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan said he expected negotiations to be concluded by Tuesday. The Israeli military said the two sides would meet again soon.

Dahlan and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz have agreed in principle on an Israeli handover of the towns of Jericho, Qalqiliya, Ramallah and Tulkarem to Palestinian control within two weeks.

"If there isn't full assurance that terror won't originate from those cities, the plan won't move forward," Silvan Shalom said. "The Palestinians have to assert their authority."

On Sunday, security officials from both sides met to work out the details of the handover of Jericho and Qalqiliya -- originally scheduled for Tuesday -- but got stuck on several points.

The Palestinians insist that Israel remove all roadblocks ringing the two towns, to help ease the lives of the residents. There are no soldiers in Jericho and Qalqiliya, and the checkpoints are the only sign of an Israeli presence.

No more checkpoints

"What we need now is a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal without checkpoints," Dahlan told the Palestinian parliament on Monday. "Things must be different for Palestinian citizens."

Israel refuses to remove all checkpoints, citing security concerns. Israel erected dozens of barriers across the West Bank when fighting began three years ago to hamper the movement of militants. That severely disrupts daily life in the West Bank.

The Israeli negotiators, meanwhile, were dissatisfied with Palestinian proposals to keep wanted gunmen in check, according to an Israeli security source.

In weekend meetings with Dahlan, Mofaz dropped a demand that the Palestinians round up all wanted men and confine them to quiet, out-of-the way Jericho. Instead, they will be able to remain in their towns, Palestinian officials said. Dahlan pledged to keep the militants in line.

The Israelis sought details on how he would do so and were dissatisfied with the answers, the security source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Shalom didn't elaborate on the guarantee Israel is seeking, but Dahlan suggested the handovers would begin soon.

"Negotiations over the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities will be completed" today he said.

The Mofaz-Dahlan agreement was reached just as a U.S.-backed "road map" to peace and Palestinian statehood by 2005 appeared seriously threatened because of new violence.

Palestinian militants carried out two suicide bombings last week, killing two Israelis, in revenge for deadly Israeli arrest raids. The Islamic Jihad group threatened more attacks to avenge the killing of a senior operative -- Israel says he was planning a bombing -- in a shootout with troops.

Yet the militants also have said they will return to observing a three-month truce declared on June 29 once they feel a score has been settled. The truce was declared by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, though Fatah renegades have not observed it.

As part of the road map, Israeli soldiers pulled out of parts of the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem in the West Bank in July. The plan requires a gradual Israeli withdrawal to positions held before the outbreak of fighting, and a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

Dahlan has said he cannot clash with the militants, for fear of setting off internal fighting. But Shalom said Palestinian authorities must move decisively "in the near future."

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces arrested two Palestinians suspected of involvement in terrorism Monday night in the West Bank village of Rashayida, east of Hebron, the army said. One suspect was shot and wounded as he tried to flee and was hospitalized, the army said.

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