JERUSALEM Ñ Israel has agreed to a military withdrawal from two
cities in the West Bank as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presses his ministers
to release detainees from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israeli officials said the cities would be designated this week in
meetings with the Palestinian Authority. They said the withdrawal would be
accompanied by the release of up to 600 Palestinian prisoners and removal
of military checkpoints in the Ramallah area.
Sharon has also been lobbying his ministers for a decision to release at
least 100 Hamas and Jihad prisoners at the Cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Officials said Sharon has been under U.S. pressure to release Islamic
insurgents before his meeting with President George Bush in Washington on
"There is no difference between Hamas and Jihad and Fatah," Deputy Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert said.
On Friday, Sharon announced a series of measures to ease restrictions on
Palestinians in the West Bank. The announcement came hours before Bush's
meeting with PA Prime Minister Mahmoud in Washington. The Abbas visit was
regarded by both U.S. and PA officials as successful.
The Israeli measures included the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners
and a pledge to release hundreds of additional detainees. The government
said it would not release prisoners "with blood on their hands," a term
which has meant those convicted of killing Israelis.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has ordered a review of the overall policy
on checkpoints in the
West Bank, the communique said. Already, three main military checkpoints
have been removed Ñ between Ramallah and Jerusalem, between Ramallah and
Nablus and between Bethlehem and Hebron.
The government also said a major road between the northern West Bank
cities of Jenin and Nablus will be reopened to public transportation. The
two cities have been regarded as leading strongholds of Hamas and
Jihad and the launching pads of most of the suicide bombing attacks in 2002.
Sharon also pledged to consider Palestinian and U.S. objections to the
security fence to protect Israel from Palestinian insurgents in the West
Bank. The communique did not elaborate.
"Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will consider ways to reduce ø by as much
as possible Ñ infringements by the security fence on the Palestinian
population's daily lives," the announcement said.
For his part, Bush termed the Israeli fence a "wall" and a "problem. He
said he has discussed this with Sharon.
"It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and
Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank," Bush said. "And I will
continue to discuss this issue very clearly with the prime minister."
Other Israeli measures cited included the transfer of 72 million shekels
million] and the issuance of permits for thousands of Palestinians to
work in Israel. At the same time, the government urged the PA to begin the
dismantling of insurgency groups.
"Israel expects the Palestinian Authority to work towards dismantling
the terrorist organizations according to the agreed-upon security plans, and
carry out the reform process in the areas of security, governance, economic
affairs, social affairs and legal affairs, in order to advance the peace
process," the statement said.