Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz yesterday ordered the Israel Defense Forces to prepare to hand over security responsibility for Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority as early as next week.

In Hebron yesterday, the IDF began dismantling an outpost that was set up shortly after the intifada erupted, in an area wrested from PA control.

In Nablus on Wednesday, the PA reached an agreement with most of the city's wanted militants to incorporate them into the PA security services.

Speaking at yesterday's weekly assessment meeting with senior defense officials, Mofaz said Bethlehem might be handed over as early as next week, and Qalqilyah the week after that, in keeping with the agreement reached at the meeting between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday.

Mofaz added that Israel should continue pressing the PA to collect weapons from militants in cities that have been handed over, and to speed up construction of the separation fence along the seam line.

According to Israeli and Palestinian sources, IDF troops in Hebron yesterday began dismantling an outpost located within a complex containing three elementary schools in the Jabel Johar neighborhood, east of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The outpost served as a staging ground for IDF operations throughout Hebron, and occasionally provided parking for heavy mechanical equipment, as well as an observation post toward the adjacent Kiryat Arba.

Military officials said the outpost was being evacuated to minimize friction with the Palestinian population, and that they expected the process to be completed by next week. The IDF would maintain observation and control outposts in open areas in the neighborhood, they added.

The Nablus agreement was concluded during PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's visit to the Balata refugee camp Wednesday. Qureia held a series of talks with heads of various factions in Nablus, mainly groups affiliated with the dominant military wing of Fatah.

Palestinian officials said 223 wanted men, mostly Fatah members, had joined the agreement, under which they promised to enlist in the security services and hand over their weapons to the PA. In return, the PA would vouch for their safety from Israeli attack and provide them with social benefits.