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Israel Agrees to Pull Out of Four Towns

August 16, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A troubled U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan received a significant boost when Israel agreed to withdraw from four more West Bank towns after an upsurge in violence brought a fragile cease-fire close to the breaking point.

The withdrawal agreement was reached Friday between Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan. It came three days after a pair of Palestinian suicide bombings killed two Israelis, and 36 hours after Israeli forces killed a senior Palestinian militant during an arrest operation in the West Bank city of Hebron.

It was not clear how much U.S. pressure was involved in ending the dispute over who should move first _ Israel in pulling back from more areas of the West Bank, or the Palestinians in starting to dismantle militant groups. Both are required by the ``road map″ peace plan, officially launched by President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on June 4.

Under the plan announced Friday, Israel would withdraw from the West Bank towns of Jericho and Qalqiliya next week and remove some military roadblocks.

The easing of travel bans is seen as a major confidence booster. Israeli checkpoints, set up at the start of fighting nearly there years ago to keep out militants, have virtually paralyzed life in the West Bank.

The withdrawal from the towns of Ramallah and Tulkarem would begin in the last week of August, provided there are no shooting and bombing attacks and the Palestinian security forces begin dismantling militant groups, said Shirli Eden, an Israeli Defense Ministry spokeswoman.

A pullback from Ramallah has been a top Palestinian priority, in part to allow Yasser Arafat some freedom of movement. For nearly two years the Palestinian leader has been confined to his Ramallah headquarters, mostly destroyed by the Israeli army in an attempt to isolate him.

Israel has agreed to allow Arafat to leave his compound temporarily to visit the grave in Gaza City of a sister who died earlier this week, Elias Zananiri, Dahlan’s spokesman, confirmed Saturday, adding that Israel would let Arafat return to Ramallah.

Arafat was unable to attend Thursday’s funeral for his sister, Yousra Abdel Raouf Al Kidwah. Israel has said Arafat could leave Ramallah but may not be permitted to return.

Arafat was still considering whether to take up the Israeli offer, said an aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh. ``For the time being, he’s staying in Ramallah until he makes up his mind,″ Abu Rdeneh said.

Despite the withdrawal agreement, the situation remains tense.

The militant Islamic Jihad group has threatened to take revenge for an Israeli raid on Thursday, in which the group’s leader in the West Bank city of Hebron, Mohammed Sidr, was killed.

A similar raid earlier this month in the West Bank city of Nablus prompted two suicide attacks this week, one by Hamas and the second by Iranian-backed renegades from Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The Palestinian groups declared a unilateral cease-fire June 29, but the Islamic militants have said that while sticking to the truce in principle, they reserve the right to respond to Israeli arrest raids.

The agreement was reached in back-to-back meetings between Dahlan and Mofaz late Thursday and Friday. ``We have agreed on Israeli withdrawal from four Palestinian cities in the West Bank in the coming two weeks,″ Dahlan said. ``The meeting was very constructive.″

He said Israeli checkpoints on the outskirts of the four towns would be removed.

An Israeli pullback to positions held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000 is required by the road map. In a first phase, Israel withdrew from parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem in July.

However, Israel had said it would not withdraw from additional towns until the Palestinians begin dismantling militant groups, as required by the peace plan.

Dahlan reiterated Friday that he would not use force against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and renegades from his own Fatah movement. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has said he does not want to set off a civil war, and will continue to try to persuade the militants to stop attacks.

The dispute apparently was resolved because both sides feared they might be blamed for a breakdown of the truce _ and therefore the road map _ if they did not relent.

But some analysts cautioned that the new agreement might be difficult to implement.

``What’s behind the agreement is the desire of all three parties_ including the U.S._ to keep the road map alive after the events of this week,″ said Joseph Alper, a former official in the Israeli Defense Ministry. ``But agreements are one thing and implementation is another. It’s not a foregone conclusion that they will carry this one out.″

Meanwhile, Israel’s Channel One reported late Friday that Israeli warplanes flew low over the holiday residence of Syrian President Bashar Assad this week in an apparent message to Syria that it should act to restrain Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. The Israeli military declined to comment.

Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, wields influence with the Lebanese government and Hezbollah militants, who last Sunday fired shells into northern Israel that killed an Israeli teenager.

Syrian officials say Assad defended recent attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas, telling U.S. envoy William Burns on Thursday that they were a reaction to Israeli provocations.

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