Israel hands over West Bank town of Jericho to Palestinians

Israeli troops pulled away from this West Bank town on Wednesday, furling their national flag and dismantling a roadblock, but the formal handover to Palestinian security control was delayed at the last minute because of a dispute over the signing of documents, officials said.

Israeli and Palestinian commanders had arrived at a liaison office Wednesday afternoon for their last meeting. The Palestinian commander, Ahmed Eid, said the Israeli officers refused to sign the handover protocol until they had shown it to their legal adviser. Israeli officials said they felt a handshake was good enough, and that the signing of documents would require a legal review.

It was not clear how soon the dispute would be resolved.

Jericho is the first of five West Bank town to revert back to Palestinian control, part of an attempt to restore the situation that existed before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

As part of the pullback in Jericho, Israeli troops removed one roadblock, while two other barriers are to remain in place for a month, a period of testing the ability of Palestinian security forces to ensure calm. The Palestinians had insisted all checkpoints be removed, but accepted the compromise.

On Wednesday morning, Israeli and Palestinian commanders patrolled the area together to affirm the planned changes on the ground, ending the trip with a handshake. At one point, officers climbed atop an Israeli watchtower for a better view. Israeli flatbed trucks began removing cement blocks at one of the roadblocks, and a soldier pulled camouflage netting off a watchtower. Another soldier removed an Israeli flag from the checkpoint, and rolled it up. Palestinian forces took up positions in another area.

Israeli travel restrictions have severely hampered daily life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in more than four years of fighting, and the removal of barriers would send a first message to ordinary Palestinians that an informal truce with Israel is beginning to pay off.

Israel erected dozens of barriers across the West Bank to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen from reaching Israeli targets; hundreds of Israelis have been killed in attacks by militants since 2000.

Palestinians were skeptical, yet hopeful. "A prisoner living in a cell will always be very glad when the guards open a window," said Issa Saasine, a plastics trader visiting Jericho from the West Bank city of Hebron. "Any small improvement is welcome, but more is needed to bring about confidence and stability."

Jericho, a farming and resort town in the Jordan Valley, has largely stayed out of the fighting, and Israeli troops rarely entered in search of fugitives. Still, the terms of the handover had to be spelled out in elaborate detail, illustrating the level of distrust that has built up since 2000.

"The point is we are trying to get things back ... gradually, hoping that through peace and negotiations things will change," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Maj. Sharon Assman, an Israeli army officer, said it is up to the Palestinians to keep militants in check. "There will be additional meetigns to consider additional easings of restrictions. This will depend on ... guarantees of the Palestinian security forces that they will fight terror," he said.

As part of the handover, 17 Palestinian fugitives in Jericho are to be taken off Israel's wanted list, said Erekat. The fate of two top militants jailed under international supervision in Jericho, including the mastermind of the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister, remains unclear.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Tuesday the two militants would be released, sparking an outrage among Israeli leaders. Erekat later said no agreement has been reached.

As part of the handover, Israel is easing checks at the main roadblock at the southern entrance to Jericho, allowing incoming traffic through without inspection. This could translate into a small boost for the local economy, which depends on tourism.

Outgoing cars were only to be checked sporadically. In the past, long lines often formed in either direction. On Wednesday, hip-high cement blocks that created traffic lanes at the checkpoint were lifted onto flatbed trucks.

Jericho will remain off-limits to Israelis for the time being, Israeli commanders said. Before the outbreak of fighting, thousands of Israelis would visit the town on weekends, many drawn by a luxury hotel and casino in town. Palestinian police set up their own checkpoint near the casino Wednesday to turn away Israelis. The casino was closed shortly after the outbreak of fighting.

Violence has dropped considerably since the Mideast summit, but militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have not formally joined a cease-fire. Islamic Jihad carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Feb. 25, killing five Israelis and endangering the truce.

The West Bank town of Tulkarem was next to be handed over, in coming days. That would be followed by Qalqiliya, just south of Tulkarem, according the understandings. No date has been set for the handover of the remaining two _ Bethlehem and Ramallah.

Not on the list at all are two West Bank cities, Nablus and Hebron, and another town, Jenin. Israel maintains a tight military grip on the three places, charging that they are hotbeds of militant activity and the sources of most of the suicide bombers and other attackers that have plagued Israel during the conflict.

Also Wednesday, an Israeli settler was shot and lightly wounded in Hebron, the army said. Local security guards said two Palestinians helped the wounded man to a nearby settlement where he called for medical help.

In Egypt, the internal Palestinians talks on a formal cease-fire were set to continue Wednesday.

However, in the first day of talks Tuesday, the militant groups appeared unenthusiastic, refusing to give up their weapons.

Hamas said it would not join the Palestinian government after parliament elections in July, despite an expected strong showing. The growing political clout of Hamas has raised concerns that the group will be able to sabotage Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, even if it halts violence.

Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israel since its founding in 1987, opposes peace talks and remains committed to Israel's eventual destruction.

Mohammed Nazzal, a Hamas delegate in Cairo, said in a telephone interview, "Our goal is not to reach the (Palestinian) Authority or to take (control of) the authority because ... we think that the political framework of the Palestinian Authority is a framework that contradicts our policies."

Associated Press

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