Israel completed its handover of the West Bank town of Tulkarem to Palestinian security control Tuesday, ceremonially unlocking a gate that had blocked traffic between the town and main points in the West Bank.
Israeli and Palestinian commanders shook hands at the gate, which is to be removed at a later point. The transfer of control to Palestinian forces, which began Monday night, has nudged along a conciliation process that has proceeded fitfully since leaders announced an end to four years of bloodshed.
The transfer could help Palestinian officials carry out a new directive restricting weapons in the hands of militants, who insist they’ll comply only if Israel withdraws from West Bank towns.
Transfer had stalled
Tulkarem, located in a sensitive position on the line between Israel and the West Bank, is the second of five West Bank towns where Palestinian security forces are to assume responsibility. Its transfer had stalled over whether to include nearby villages and roads.
Similar issues, pitting Israeli security concerns against Palestinian suspicions of Israeli foot-dragging, had delayed the handover of the first town, Jericho, and are liable to re-emerge in negotiations on the other three.
Since Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an end to violence at a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt, violence has dropped considerably, but not all confidence-building measures — transfer of the towns and release of additional Palestinian prisoners — have been implemented.
Before the gate was unlocked Tuesday, Palestinians had to make a 4-mile loop to get onto the main road that connected Tulkarem with Nablus, the biggest city in the West Bank. Nablus, which is not slated for handover because Israel considers it a center of militant activity, is closed to vehicles, with entry only on foot.
The senior Israeli commander, Col. Tamir Hayman, told The Associated Press that Palestinian security forces in Tulkarem were authorized Monday evening to “act to ensure security, prevent terror and round up weapons.”
Masked gunmen fired weapons in the air Monday night as Palestinians celebrated the handover agreement. Palestinian police watched without taking action.
Israeli and Palestinian security officers hammered out a compromise over Tulkarem in two meetings on Monday.
The main sticking point had been two villages north of Tulkarem, where Israel says the Islamic Jihad cell responsible for a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv operates.
An Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said Israel was not satisfied with Palestinian actions against militants there but that contacts over the villages would continue with the intent of handing them over later. Israeli forces arrested four Islamic Jihad militants in the area early Monday, the military said.
Palestinians have said that they cannot be expected to enforce security measures in towns and villages where they are not in control.
Difficulties over Jericho and Tulkarem seemed to spell trouble ahead for the others. Next in line is Qalqiliya, which like Tulkarem is located on the line between Israel and the West Bank. Bethlehem, 3 miles from Jerusalem, is next, to be followed by Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government.
Israel could raise security concerns at each stage, dragging out the process. Israel points to more than four years of Palestinian attacks, including more than 100 suicide bombings, to explain its focus on security issues. Palestinians say the Israeli reservations amount to bad faith.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Israel already agreed to hand over the five towns and the areas around them at the Feb. 8 summit. Speaking before the Tulkarem agreement, Qureia angrily accused Israel of “renegotiating issues that are already agreed upon.”