Israel will hand over the West Bank town of Tulkarem to Palestinian control this week, a senior Palestinian commander said Sunday, marking the resumption of confidence-building measures halted after a suicide bombing killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv.
Israeli and Palestinian commanders met Sunday for the first time since the Feb. 25 bombing — attributed to the Islamic Jihad — that led Israel to freeze the handover of five towns and release of 400 more prisoners. That agreement was reached last month when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared a truce to end four years of bloodshed.
Before the bombing, the idea was to begin with Jericho, an isolated town in the Jordan River valley, but the two sides failed to agree on how much territory would be involved. Tulkarem is adjacent to the northern section of the line between Israel and the West Bank.
The senior Palestinian participant in the Sunday talks, West Bank commander Hajj Ismail Jabber, told the Associated Press, “it was agreed in principle that the Israeli army will begin Tuesday withdrawing from Tulkarem and the areas around the town, and afterward we will discuss the Israeli withdrawal from the other towns in the West Bank.”
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said government approval was necessary before the pullout could begin. He said Tulkarem would be the first town to be handed over, if the Palestinians can fulfill their obligations to clamp down on violence.
Settler rabbis called for a day of fasting to protest their government’s plan to remove all 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank. The rabbis issued an edict they said obligates all religious Zionists, calling for a dawn-to-dusk fast on March 17 to “break the horrible decree” of the pullout.
Israeli officials said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz would meet Abbas this week for the first time.
In Washington, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon told CNN that Abbas would also meet Sharon again soon, and Israel would release more prisoners.
Also Sunday, Jordanian foreign minister Hani al-Mulqi met Israeli leaders, the first such visit in more than four years. Jordan recently named an ambassador to Israel after leaving its embassy vacant through most of the current conflict. Al-Mulqi called for intense peace efforts in meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, just before Shalom left for Washington.
U.S. officials said Sharon would visit the White House in mid-April, after the first trip to Washington by Abbas as Palestinian leader — a reflection of renewed U.S. involvement in Mideast peacemaking in the post-Yasser Arafat era.
Before leaving for Washington on Sunday, Shalom indicated the focus of his talks in Washington would be Syria and Lebanon, not the Palestinians.
“The purpose is to act to get Syrian troops out of Lebanon, include Hezbollah on the list of terror organizations, dismantle their terror infrastructure,” Shalom said. Israel has welcomed international pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon after last month’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria was widely blamed but has denied involvement.
Israel and Syria, archenemies since the Jewish state was created in 1948, came close to a peace agreement in 2000, but the talks broke down.
Israel fought a bloody 18-year guerrilla war against Hezbollah before withdrawing its forces from south Lebanon in 2000. However, Hezbollah — which draws backing from both Syria and Iran — disputes the U.N.-drawn border and still attacks Israeli troops from time to time.
According to a statement from Sharon’s office, he told the visiting Jordanian official that Abbas has made positive moves, like deploying Palestinian police in Gaza, but has yet to take active steps against militants. “As long as we make progress because of temporary calm, we are held hostage by the (violent) groups, which will destroy the process as they did in 2003.”
In 2003, when Abbas was prime minister, he secured a cease-fire, met Sharon and Israel released some prisoners, but the process stopped there. Abbas lost prestige, argued with Arafat and quit his post after only four months in power — and violence resumed with a vengeance.
“We have been saying for a long time that we want peace for future generations,” al-Mulqi said after meeting Sharon. “Today we say we want peace for us first.”