JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - Plans by Israel to end its occupation of two West Bank cities and return them to Palestinian control hit last-minute snags early today over the removal of checkpoints and how Palestinian police would supervise suspected militants.
Israeli and Palestinian security officials have scheduled another round of talks tomorrow for the withdrawal of troops from Jericho and Qalqilya. The abrupt breakdown today was a surprise, as both sides had portrayed the hand-over as all but completed.
The apparent agreement had sparked a renewed sense of optimism after a week of stalled talks, a double suicide bombing that killed two Israelis and renewed retaliatory strikes by Palestinian militants. Israel had repeatedly threatened to abandon a U.S.-backed peace plan if attacks continued.
Palestinian and Israeli officials gave different accounts early today of the new dispute. Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security services, said Israel declined to remove crucial checkpoints around Qalqilya, which would have left the city empty of soldiers but isolated from the rest of the West Bank.
"The withdrawal would be meaningless," Zananiri said in an interview this morning, sounding far more downcast than he had last night.
Israeli officials said the Palestinians failed to give them guarantees that suspected militants would be adequately monitored. Israel is prepared to drop its demand that Palestinian police arrest armed members of factions. Israel would allow them to remain in their home cities, but it wants assurances that they will not return to violence.
A senior government official, briefing reporters after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday, said Israeli leaders decided that giving Palestinians more responsibility over security matters would "draw them into a more active campaign against terror."
Israeli officials have complained that the Palestinians were doing nothing to fight violence as the peace plan requires. The Palestinians have said that most attacks came from areas under Israel's control, and that their security forces could not be held responsible.
Israeli and Palestinian officials warned last week that the peace process is dangerously close to falling apart after raids by the Israeli army and reprisal attacks by militants. It appeared that the thread holding the cease-fire together was that neither side wanted to be blamed for its failure.
Yesterday's moves by Israel were calculated, the senior government official said, "to improve Israel's image in the international arena and to transfer the ball into the Palestinian court." The official added that the message to the Palestinians is clear: "You take responsibility. You tackle terror."
In a government statement, Cabinet officials warned that if Palestinian militants continue attacks, the Palestinian Authority "would then bear responsibility for the security escalation, possibly entailing the collapse of the process."
Yesterday evening, Palestinian police preparing for the withdrawal fanned out in Qalqilya to prevent infiltrators from reaching Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet that since the deal on Jericho and Qalqilya was struck Friday, Israeli intelligence services have detected an increased level of activity by Palestinian security forces to confront militant groups.
Mofaz responded to critics who accused the government of caving to Palestinian demands and leaving Israeli cities vulnerable. "The chances of advancing the peace process are greater than the dangers of transferring responsibility of the cities," Mofaz told the Cabinet, according to the government official.
Jericho and Qalqilya have been two of the quieter cities, with few troops inside either for prolonged periods of time. Soldiers have withdrawn from Bethlehem and pulled back in Gaza; they still occupy five other cities on the West Bank, though they may leave Ramallah and Tulkarm soon.
Israeli officials have complained for weeks that the Palestinians have ignored a key provision of the U.S.-backed road map to peace that demands they dismantle militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan has refused to confront the armed factions, saying that his forces are too weak and that he does not want to spark a civil war. As a provision of the latest withdrawals, Israeli officials appear to have softened their hard-line stance.
Instead of demanding that Palestinian police arrest militant gunmen, Israeli officials said they would be satisfied if Palestinian security forces contain them in their hometowns and integrate them into mainstream society. For many, it would mean returning to the police force.
In easing their stance, Israeli officials appear to be more interested in the outcome of no attacks than in how the Palestinians achieve this goal.
Israeli officials said guidelines for dealing with wanted Palestinians - including more than a dozen in leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah - are still being worked out.
Now, the officials said, they want to review plans of how Dahlan will prevent future attacks and supervise militants he has no intention of jailing. This concession by Israel was vital because the Palestinians do not consider the militants criminals, but rather nationalists who they maintain would give up their arms if political achievements are at hand.
The renewed efforts by both sides are designed to shore up a shaky cease-fire that began six weeks ago and is set to expire at the end of next month. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is to travel this week to Gaza to meet with militant leaders and try to extend the truce for another three to six months.