First Published:   16:40 , 05.04.05
Latest Update:   19:36 , 05.04.05


Talks Resume
Photo: AP Sharon expected to meet Abbas soon Photo: AP
click here to enlarge text click here to enlarge text
Handover of West Bank towns on hold

Cabinet decides to freeze handover of three more West Bank cities, Sharon and Abbas expected to meet soon to discuss possible coordination on Israel's plan to quit the Gaza Strip; Israel also gearing up to free 400 Palestinian prisoners it promised to release as part of efforts to promote peacemaking
By Attila Somfalvi and Ali Waked

The Security Cabinet decided Wednesday to freeze the transfer of three more West Bank cities promised to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas until the Palestinian leader carry out reforms within his  security forces and make stronger efforts to stop terror. 


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said during the meeting in Jerusalem that he would meet with Abbas soon to discuss demands by Israel and the United States that the Palestinian leader rein in terrorists, as well as coordination on Israel’s Gaza pullout plan.


While Sharon did not specify a date for the meeting, political sources said it would likely take place before Abbas’s meeting with President George Bush in Washington this month.


The Israeli prime minister visited Bush at his Texas ranch in April, where the president reaffirmed his approval of Israel’s plan to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements this summer and four of 120 in the West Bank while keeping large West Bank settlement blocs.


Israeli sources also said Sharon was likely to announce at the meeting a timeframe for Israel's planned release of 400 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture to Abbas. A joint Israeli-Palestinian committee is expected to meet on Sunday to discuss the issue.


Abbas and Sharon last met in February at a summit in Egypt, where they declared a cease-fire to end more than four years of violence.


The Palestinian leader is expected to demand Israel resume gestures it began months ago to boost peacemaking, such as freeing Palestinian prisoners and transferring control of several Palestinian towns to his security forces. Israel has already let 500 Palestinians go and had slated 400 more for release.


Cities transfer frozen


Israel has already handed control of two Palestinians cities in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority but said on Wednesday it would not transfer three more it had promised Abbas until the Palestinian leader carry out reforms within his corruption-ridden security forces and make stronger efforts to stop terror.


But the Palestinian Authority reiterated on Wednesday it had no intention of disarming gunmen despite

constant Israeli calls for such a move and a recent pledge to crack down on unlicensed weapons.


The announcement came amid growing friction between armed factions and security forces following the arrest of two Hamas men after a gunfight on Monday night. The terrorists had allegedly planned to attack Israel in defiance of the cease-fire.


Mofaz said the Palestinians had not fulfilled their commitments to collect weapons from terrorists. The army had recommended to go ahead with the cities transfer anyway, but the Shin Bet secret service advised to keep the process frozen.


"The handling by the Palestinians of the wanted men in Jericho and Tulkarm, cities they had already received, is an uncompromisable condition to the continuation of the town transfer process," Mofaz said.


Abbas had ordered a massive shake-up of his security forces, plagued by corruption and rivalry between loyalists of Yasser Arafat and a younger "new guard." He also had two Hamas terrorists arrested this week but released them on Tuesday following a massive demonstration in Gaza City by gunmen.


Pullout coordination


Israeli and Palestinian officials had met in recent weeks to discuss possible coordination on the Gaza pullout plan, as requested by Bush. Sharon had said Israel would carry out the plan alone unless Abbas reins in militants and dismantles their organizations.


Vice Premier Shimon Peres met with U.S. envoy James Wolfensohn, who said World Bank representatives were expected to visit Israel next week to try to help Israel and the Palestinian Authority coordinate economically on the pullout, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported


He said teams would help draw up plans for projects to boost the impoverished coastal strip’s economy after the withdrawal.


Jewish settlers and right-wingers oppose the Israeli withdrawal, claiming the West Bank and Gaza as their biblical birthright, and have vowed to work to stop it. Sharon told his cabinet he did not expect the 8,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza slated for evacuation to resist the withdrawal violently.


"Obviously the settlers have no intention of declaring they support the disengagement process, but we expect they will not take violent actions," he said.