Israel pulls back from West Bank, plans release of Palestinians

Special to World
Monday, July 28, 2003

JERUSALEM 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 Tuesday.

"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 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 by as much as possible 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 [$17 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.

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