Israel offers to 'withdraw' from unoccupied cities

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The Independent Online

Israel has announced new measures to improve the humanitarian situation of Palestinians, ahead of Ariel Sharon's trip to Washington on Tuesday for talks with President George Bush.

Israel says it will "withdraw" from two more Palestinian cities in the West Bank and dismantle some roadblocks. However, the Israeli army's "withdrawal" from Bethlehem three weeks ago was purely cosmetic, since soldiers were not inside the city, and did little to change the lives of Palestinians.

It appears that these new moves are designed to bolster the Israeli Prime Minister's position before his talks with Mr Bush.

The announcement comes after Mr Bush's talks with Mr Sharon's Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, on Friday, which were generally considered to have gone well for Mr Abbas.

Mr Bush described the "security fence" which Israel is building in the West Bank as a "problem" and said he would raise it with Mr Sharon. It is an issue Mr Sharon is loath to discuss, still less change policy on, but if Mr Bush puts him under pressure he may have little choice.

It is also thought likely that the US President will raise Israel's slow progress in fulfilling the pledge Mr Sharon made at the Aqaba summit in June to dismantle settlement outposts.

There was a sign of Mr Sharon's discomfort when a meeting to discuss releasing Palestinian prisoners was bought forward to today.

The new withdrawals are likely to follow the Bethlehem model. The Israeli army has been off the streets in the quieter Palestinian cities for months, only making periodic raids to arrest militants.

In Bethlehem the only change was that Palestinian police were allowed back on to the streets. The army continues to encircle the city.

The two cities for the new withdrawals have not yet been named. Israeli television reported they would be Qalqilya and Jericho.

The idea of a withdrawal from Jericho is laughable: the Israeli army never reoccupied the city and has not been inside it. It is in Jericho that Palestinian police train to take over in the other cities when the army hands them back.