Israeli sources: IDF pullout in Gaza could begin Monday
Agreement reached after concessions from both sides; no deal on Bethlehem pullout; Powell: this is 'very positive development.'
Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached an agreement Friday for an IDF pullback in the Gaza Strip and a transferal of security control to the Palestinians, during a meeting between Palestinian Minister for Security Mohammed Dahlan and Israel's coordinator in the territories, Major General Amos Gilad.
No agreement was reached on a transfer of security control in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, but talks on the matter will take place in the coming week.
Officers in the field from both sides will meet Sunday to finalize details and the pullout from Gaza is estimated to begin as soon as Monday, sources in Jerusalem said.
The meeting will focus on arrangements for the movement of vehicles on the main "Tancher" highway that bisects the northern and southern Strip; the sharing of intelligence to prevent attacks on Israeli targets; and the deployment of Palestinian security forces in areas evacuated by IDF troops.
According to Israeli sources, Dahlan said the PA would begin collecting illegal weapons from the various Palestinian factions, an issue which has hindered negotiations between the two sides, and whose resolution is seen as a major sign of progress.
The sources also said that the PA committed itself to work to end all attacks in areas that will be under its control, including the firing of Qassam rockets and mortars, to prevent arms smuggling, to stop terror attacks using intelligence provided by Israel, and cease incitement in the Palestinian media.
But the PA stopped short of committing to arrest Hamas activists.
Israel, for its part, has agreed to raise the quota of work permits it issues to Palestinians and ease travel restrictions at the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and the Allenby Bridge border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan. In addition, Palestinian vehicles will gradually be allowed to use the main highway.
The announcement that a deal had been reached was hailed by the White House, who earlier this month dispatched a delegation, headed by John Wolf, to monitor the implementation of the internationally-brokered road map to Middle East peace.
This is a very positive development. It reflects the kind of movement that the president and the other leaders called for," said Secretary of State Colin Powell.
He said the agreement would be extended "in due course" to Bethlehem.
"I would expect that in a couple of days security officials from both sides, commanders from both sides, would get down to the details of how it will be accomplished and how it will be monitored over time," he told reporters after talks with Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure.
"It is an early step. A lot more has to happen in the days ahead to make sure that this opportunity is not lost, and this is the beginning of a long process," he added.
"The agreement represents a first significant joint step toward implementation of commitments made by each party at the Aqaba summit," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, referring to the June 4 summit held by U.S. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Aqaba, Jordan.
Wolf also attended Friday's meeting between Dahlan and Gilad, their fourth round of talks in recent days.
Israel Television said Friday that the American delegation would oversee the troop withdrawal.
Dahlan and Gilad met Thursday night at the Herzilyah home of U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer. Army Radio quoted Palestinian sources as saying that negotiators at the meeting reached an agreement on Israeli withdrawal from the northern Gaza Strip, including Beit Hanun and Beit Lahiyah, and on a significant easing of travel restrictions on Palestinians.
Israel is asking the United States for guarantees that the Palestinian Authority will dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in areas in which it assumes security authority - as it is obligated to do under the road map peace plan - rather than settling for an agreement with the terrorist organizations on a cessation of attacks.
The demand for U.S. guarantees will be at the center of Israeli officials' talks with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who arrives in Jerusalem on Saturday.
She will meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday night and with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Sunday. She will also meet with PA Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass.
Shalom met with U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns early Friday afternoon to prepare for Rice's visit, Israel Radio reported.
Dahlan has refused to offer Israel such a pledge during his talks with Gilad, arguing that it would surely be leaked, impeding efforts to reach a truce with the terrorist groups. He said that the PA would act in its own way to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, and that its internal arrangements are no concern of Israel's.
"Dahlan's plan is a truce and nothing else," a senior security official said Thursday. "He told us explicitly that he has no intention of arresting activists or disarming the terrorist organizations."
Government sources in Jerusalem predicted Thursday that Washington would grant the requested guarantees, in light of President George Bush's remarks on Wednesday, in which he publicly urged the PA to disarm Hamas rather than settling for a cease-fire. American sources said that Rice planned to stress this issue in her talks with Abbas.