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Taking the recommendations of senior IDF officers, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer yesterday decided that there will be no further Israeli pullback from the West Bank city of Hebron at least until the end of the Jewish High Holidays, some six weeks from now.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon ordered senior army officers to put an immediate halt to remarks critical of the redeployment, after a report was published in Ha'aretz on Friday on the IDF opposition to a withdrawal from Hebron.

During a meeting Friday between the head of Central Command, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, and the head of the Palestinian National Security in the West Bank, General Hajj Ismail, Israel announced that there will be no further IDF withdrawals from the territories.

The meeting in Bethlehem was described as "positive" but the Israeli representatives stressed that the Palestinians needed to act more convincingly against terrorism.

The two officers agreed that they would begin coordination on humanitarian issues but no specific steps were spelled out.

The meeting was originally called to discuss the next steps in the "Gaza and Bethlehem first" plan, including the possibility of a withdrawal from Hebron.

For the Palestinians, the Israeli decision to freeze any further withdrawals has been interpreted as a sign of the government's negative intentions regarding any pullout.

"Israel has frozen the agreement," Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, told Reuters on Saturday. "The Israeli side has no intention to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. Therefore there won't be any progress."

Under the Gaza and Bethlehem first plan, negotiated with the Palestinians by Ben-Eliezer, Israel meant to withdraw from any area in which the Palestinian Authority ensured that terror would cease. Israel has already withdrawn its forces from Bethlehem and has agreed in principle to do the same in Gaza. Hebron, which has been deemed relatively quiet in recent weeks, was considered the next likely spot for a withdrawal should the plan prove successful in Bethlehem and Gaza.

Senior officers in the IDF oppose an Israeli withdrawal from Hebron, which has been discussed by the political echelon as a possible next step in the Gaza first plan for gradual withdrawals from Palestinian territory.

IDF sources claimed that the plan strengthens the status of Arafat, thereby undermining the efforts Israel has made over the last several months to weaken him.

Furthermore, the sources said, the declarations about Israel's intentions to withdraw from additional cities in the West Bank have raised Palestinian expectations, while Israel has yet to receive any tangible benefits in return.

While agreeing that Hebron had been relatively quiet, with comparatively few intelligence warnings about planned attacks, the sources said that this was mainly due "to the IDF's extended activity within the city and the arrest of wanted men."

At a minimum, the IDF recommended that any withdrawal from Hebron be deferred until after the High Holidays, partly to avoid any problems that could arise when many Jews flock there to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs, but also to provide sufficient time to evaluate the results of the withdrawals in Bethlehem and Gaza.

In Gaza, there were exchanges of fire throughout Friday, leading to charges that the PA was not doing enough to stop the violence. As opposed to the West Bank, the PA's security services in Gaza are largely intact.

$28 million transferred to PA

Israel transferred $28 million out of a total of $700 million in PA funds frozen since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, according to an announcement made by the PA Director of Industry and Trade, Maher al-Masri. Speaking to the London-based daily Al Hayat, Masri called on the international community to pressure Israel to release the remaining funds, which were collected as VAT and customs on goods imported into the PA.