JERUSALEM -- In the latest sign of budding cooperation, Israel's defense minister said yesterday that the army would likely withdraw troops from some West Bank cities in a matter of days, turning security over to Palestinian forces.
A pullback of Israeli troops from cities they have patrolled during the nearly 4 1/2 -year-old conflict would meet a key demand of the new Palestinian leadership, which has impressed Israel by moving to quell the activities of armed militants in the Gaza Strip.
The proposed transfer comes amid preparations for a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which is tentatively planned for next week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive Sunday for visits with both sides, Israeli news media reported.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said specifics of the withdrawal would be ironed out with the Palestinians. An initial pullback could take place this week in four cities: Ramallah, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Jericho, according to Palestinian sources quoted by Israeli media.
Israeli officials said the withdrawal probably would be accompanied by the removal of roadblocks, which Palestinians say inhibit their movements and choke their economy. Israel has defended the roadblocks and checkpoints around Palestinian towns and cities as needed safeguards against suicide bombers.
Mofaz said Israel could remove troops from all Palestinian cities by year's end.
"We should take care that all the confidence-building measures, the transfer of responsibility and the security coordination shouldn't come at the expense of security," Mofaz told Israel Radio. "But at the same time, we are discussing with the Palestinian Authority all the issues which have to do with security coordination and the transfer of responsibility in the sense that the Palestinians will now fight against the terror and prevent it."
Even a limited Israeli withdrawal would restore to Palestinian forces some of the authority they had before the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. Under an interim peace agreement, the Palestinians had been responsible for managing and policing the main population centers of the West Bank, but Israeli troops seized the cities after violence broke out. Soldiers have pulled back from the cities at times but re-entered when new violence occurred.
"It's a good development," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said of the proposed withdrawal. He said the goal was a return to patrolling responsibilities in place before the uprising, or intifada.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials were preparing to resume their role as a go-between on security between the Israelis and Palestinians, the daily Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. The newspaper said the three-way arrangement, headed by CIA officers and including Israeli and Palestinian security officials, was aimed at preventing routine violence from escalating.
A similar setup collapsed amid the violence of the current uprising.
Israeli leaders expressed more praise yesterday for the way Abbas has curbed militant groups by appealing for calm and deploying police in pockets of the Gaza Strip where fighters had been launching mortar shells and rockets into Israeli communities. The volleys have nearly stopped.
Israel had said Abbas would have to take steps against the militants before meaningful progress toward reconciliation could take place.
Palestinian militants are vowing to hold their fire, at least temporarily, while Abbas seeks a broader cease-fire with Israel. Last week, Israel's military command ordered the army to halt incursions in the Gaza Strip and reduce them in the West Bank. The orders, from the army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, included an end to the targeted killings of militants.
In other developments, more than 100,000 Jewish settlers and their supporters gathered near the Israeli parliament last night to protest Sharon's plan to evacuate Gaza settlements this year. The latest protest, at a makeshift encampment where some demonstrators have kept a presence for weeks, was scheduled to last 24 hours, organizers said.
The settlers are seeking to head off the evacuation, which includes all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the northern West Bank, by urging that a national referendum be held first. But their prospects for success have grown dimmer since the left-leaning Labor Party, which supports the withdrawal, joined Sharon's government early this month.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.