Palestinians given control of cities in West Bank
Israel has agreed to allow the Palestinian Authority to deploy its own security forces in five West Bank cities this week in the latest of a series of confidence-building steps designed to entrench the still fragile and undeclared truce.
After a weekend meeting between the Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and the former Palestinian security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, a senior PA security official was yesterday quoted as saying the forces would deploy from Wednesday in Ramallah, Tul Karm, Qalqiliya, Jericho and Bethlehem.
Mr Mofaz had said after the meeting that Israel would pull its troops back from several West Bank cities within days, depending on the outcome of further talks with the new Palestinian leadership. Mr Mofaz told the cabinet yesterday there had been a drop of between 70 and 75 per cent in "terror attacks" on Israeli targets and a noticeable "calming" of the conflict over the past few days.
But the fragility of the position was underlined yesterday when Israeli troops shot dead a 65-year-old Palestinian man in the early hours close to the southern border with Egypt. The army said the man was inside a "no-go" zone near a military post on the Israeli border patrol road.
Although most of the cities have been subject to military raids of varying intensity, Israeli troops do not normally have a continued presence inside them, and the cities do not include the two in the West Bank which have suffered most conflict, Nablus and Jenin. But the deployment of Palestinians follow similar ones in Gaza ordered by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President also known as Abu Mazen, to maintain the period of "quiet" agreed a week ago with the armed factions.
In one of the most significant changes to Israeli security policy, the army chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon not only imposed a freeze on "offensive" military operations in the Gaza strip but also ordered that arrest operations directed at militants in the West Bank would require his personal authority.
Palestinians maintain - and some Israeli officials at least partly acknowledge in private - that one factor behind the collapse of the 51-day truce brokered by Mr Abbas when he was prime minister in 2003 was the continued pursuit and in some cases assassinations of militants. The only operation in the West Bank at the weekend was when troops arrested two wanted Fatah men in the Ein Beit-Ilma refugee camp in Nablus, who the army suspected of planning to commit an attack.
Mr Mofaz said that the IDF had been directed to act in a restrained manner while continuing to foil imminent attacks on Israelis. He added: "The IDF will continue to act anywhere that is required while simultaneously refraining from causing harm to the Palestinian security forces and to Palestinian civilians not involved in terrorism."
He also indicated that regulations covering whether Israeli troops were expected to open fire had been "redefined" in areas where PA security forces were being deployed.
Mr Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, are to meet on or around 8 February for talks which Israel has wanted to focus on security but which the new Palestinian leadership has been trying to expand to cover prospects for political progress. The army has also conditionally agreed to reopen the Gaza strip crossings closed after a shooting and bombing attack killed six Israel workers at the Karni cargo terminal earlier this month.
At the same time, the CIA is expected to resume its role in trying to co-ordinate security between Israel and the Palestinians in the hope of entrenching the possibility of a full ceasefire.
Last night, several thousand Jewish settlers and other demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem for what the organisers hope will be one of the largest protests yet against Mr Sharon's plan to disengage from Gaza this year. The demonstration is planned to last 24 hours.