Israeli withdrawal from West Bank towns 'imminent'

War on terrorism: West Bank
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The Independent Online

Israel is expected to start pulling out of West Bank towns, starting with Bethlehem, Cabinet ministers said on Friday, signaling the end of a weeklong incursion that has cost more than 30 lives and angered the United States.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, Israeli forces killed three armed Palestinians who were trying to infiltrate a Jewish settlement early Friday, the military said. The militant Hamas took responsibility.

After a four-hour session of senior Cabinet ministers, convened by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after constant US pressure to withdraw from six West Bank towns seized after Palestinian militants assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi on October 17, the government issued a statement saying that departure from Palestinian-controlled areas "will be made possible to the extent that the Palestinian Authority implements its commitments."

Israeli, Palestinian and US security officials were to meet later on Friday to negotiate terms for the withdrawal, which will be gradual and will depend on calm in the areas vacated, the statement said.

Science Minister Matan Vilnai of the moderate Labor party said the withdrawal was imminent. "I believe that within a few days this will be finished," he told Israel Radio.

Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, from Sharon's hawkish Likud, said there were two conditions for the withdrawal. The Palestinian Authority must take command of the areas Israel relinquishes, preventing attacks, and must arrest militants.

"It would be unacceptable that we would leave and the very people who are responsible for attacks would continue with the attacks as if nothing happened," Shalom told Israel Radio.

Shalom indicated that Israeli forces would pull out of Bethlehem first. "We made a distinction between the Bethlehem area and other areas," he said. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, has been a focus of fighting and international concern during the incursion.

He said demands for a pullback from the United States and the UN Security Council were a factor in the decision.

Gun battles went on through the night in Bethlehem. Late on Thursday, a Palestinian police officer was killed in a refugee camp next to the town, the fourth to die in the area during the day, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said there were exchanges of fire but could not confirm the deaths.

In northern Gaza, armed Palestinians tried to infiltrate Dugit, a Jewish settlement, early on Friday, apparently intending to attack settlers, the military said. Israeli soldiers intercepted them at the perimeter fence and opened fire, killing three, a military statement said.

Claiming responsibility for the attempted incursion, Hamas said several Israeli soldiers were killed. The Israeli military denied that.

At the same time the Israeli ministers were meeting, special envoys from the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, along with diplomats accredited to the Palestinian Authority, met with Arafat.

The diplomats said Arafat had taken steps to implement the truce but that they were torpedoed by the Oct. 17 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the killing as vengeance for Israel's Aug. 27 killing of its leader Mustafa Zibri, who was accused of plotting attacks on Israelis.

"We welcome the commitment made by Chairman Arafat to take additional specific and concrete steps to control violence and to ensure full implementation of the PA's ceasefire orders," a joint statement said, adding a call for the Palestinians to maintain their efforts and round up those who violated the truce.

The statement, read to reporters by UN Mideast Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, also made demands on the Israelis, among them an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas and an end to what it called Israel's "extrajudicial killings" of suspected Palestinian militants.

Sources close to Fischer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that at the meeting, Arafat said he had recently arrested 73 suspects, including those who carried out a deadly Oct. 2 raid on a Jewish settlement in the northern Gaza Strip. Arafat also said he had prevented a number of planned suicide bomb attacks on Israelis and confiscated mortars used to lob shells at settlements.