West Bank handover talks stall

Talks on Israel ceding control of West Bank towns to the Palestinian Authority stalled over technicalities on Wednesday, while Israel voiced caution after a top Palestinian official said militant groups were set to observe a truce.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had agreed late on Tuesday that Israel would first cede security control of Jericho and then of Tulkarem “in the coming days”.

But less than 24 hours later, follow-up talks between Israeli and Palestinian commanders on securing the process broke down in Jericho.

“We did not reach a final agreement yet,” Haj Ismail Jabr, the top Palestinian security official in the West Bank, told reporters.

The talks will continue on handing over “full authority to the Palestinian Authority in the Jericho area” after further consultations at a political level, he added.

An Israeli military spokesperson confirmed that Wednesday’s talks had failed, but said another round of contacts would be held later in the day.

“It seems the Israelis do not have clear instructions for dismantling checkpoints and giving the Palestinian Authority Al-Auja,” a village 7km north of Jericho, Jabr said.

That would give the Palestinian Authority control over a stretch of Route 90—the main road running through the West Bank linking Jericho to northern Israel.

The transfer of security in five West Bank towns—Ramallah, Bethlehem, Qalqilya, Tulkarem and Jericho—was one of the key issues agreed on at a summit in Egypt between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

On Thursday, Mofaz is set to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who hosted a landmark peace summit last month amid warming ties between the two countries after four years of frosty relations over the Palestinian intifada.

The meeting comes ahead of planned talks between the Palestinian factions in Cairo next week, which had been delayed following a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv late last month.

Militants ‘ready to stop attacks’

Earlier, Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajub declared militants are ready to stop attacks.

He hailed the move as an “historic change”, 12 days after a Tel Aviv suicide bombing threatened an informal ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but there was no direct confirmation from armed factions.

“There is a consensus among the Palestinians to stop attacks behind the Green Line [which has separated Israel and the occupied territories since 1967]. There is an agreement on this point,” Rajub told Israeli public radio.

Despite a drop in anti-Israeli violence, both Islamic Jihad—which claimed the February 26 bombing—and its larger rival Hamas have distanced themselves from the ceasefire declared at the Middle East summit last month.

Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said Rajub has “no right” to speak on behalf of all factions, but that the movement will listen to proposals put forward at the inter-Palestinian talks in Cairo next Tuesday.

Najfez Azzam, a senior Jihad official, also said any such truce will depend on what “Israel will offer in return and so far, it has not kept its promises”.

Without official confirmation from the factions, Israel at best reserved judgement and at worst remained sceptical.

“As long as Palestinian terrorist groups are not disarmed and dismantled, they constitute a threat,” said one senior official. “All arrangements on observing peace that can be made with and between them are essentially temporary.”

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, heading to an anti-terrorism conference in Madrid, where he is to meet Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan and chief negotiator Saeb Erakat, said he is unaware of any ceasefire.

“I know the Palestinians are making efforts on an agreement [to end violence].
I don’t know if that accord has been concluded, but it is clear that they must renounce terrorism and dismantle armed groups,” Peres said.

In Washington, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him Hamas will remain a blacklisted terrorist organisation, sapping it of funds.—Sapa-AFP

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