Israel and the Palestinian Authority have being holding secret negotiations over the past month for a gradual restoration of Palestinian security control over West Bank cities, senior Israeli officials familiar with the contacts said.
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Under an Israeli proposal, the Israel Defense Forces would end its frequent operations in Area A except for so-called ticking-bomb cases. During the talks, Israel proposed that Ramallah and Jericho be the first cities the IDF would withdraw from; if the measure succeeded, it would be expanded to other West Bank cities.
Senior Israeli officials told Haaretz the talks were currently stuck but not dead and could resume.
Area A includes the larger Palestinian cities and surrounding villages, representing about a fifth of West Bank territory. According to the Oslo Accords, civilian and security control of these areas should be in the hands of the PA.
But since 2002's Operation Defensive Shield during the second intifada, Israel stopped abiding by some of the Oslo Accords regarding Area A, and the IDF operates there without restrictions almost daily.
The contacts were the initiative of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and the head of Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approve and have been updated on the process.
Senior Israeli officials who requested anonymity said the step was designed to prevent damage to security coordination between the IDF and Palestinian security forces, stabilize the situation on the ground and reduce friction between the IDF and the Palestinians.
Participating in the talks on the Palestinian side are Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, intelligence chief Majid Faraj and the head of preventive security, Ziad Hab al-Rih.
Another figure in on the contacts has been U.S. security coordinator Frederick Rudesheim, who has not served as a mediator in the talks, which are being held directly. But he has been updated and occasionally offers suggestions.
The contacts were launched a little more than a month ago; on February 9 a security coordination meeting was held. On the Israeli side, generals Mordechai and Numa were present, and on the Palestinian side, Sheikh, Faraj and Hab al-Rih.
Palestinian officials said the three told their Israeli counterparts that if Israel refused to restore the situation in areas A and B to the situation before the second intifada and stop sending the IDF into Area A, the Palestinians would suspend security coordination.
In Area B, which also covers about a fifth of the West Bank, the Palestinians have civilian authority and the Israelis security control. Today Israel restricts civilian activity in PA territory in both these areas.
Any suspension of IDF and Palestinian security coordination would have a negative effect in the West Bank. Eisenkot hinted about the army's fears of such a cessation in a speech on February 17. "There is cooperation with the Palestinian security forces and there are more than 40,000 such security personnel," he said.
On January 20, Faraj, the intelligence chief, told the site Defense News that PA security forces had in recent months thwarted 200 attacks against Israelis in the West Bank. He also said Palestinian security forces had arrested more than 100 Palestinians in the West Bank and confiscated large quantities of weapons.
He said security coordination was preventing chaos and the entry of extremist elements such as the Islamic State that might endanger all countries in the region including Israel.
Following the Palestinian messages, Israeli defense officials held talks on ways to maintain security coordination with the Palestinians. The result was a proposal to the Palestinians presented over several meetings in recent weeks, one of them on February 25.
Ya'alon and Netanyahu approved the proposal in principle before it was presented to the Palestinians. According to senior officials in Jerusalem, the Israeli proposal includes the following:
1) A nearly total cessation of IDF troop entries into Area A except for emergencies. Israel made clear it would retain the right to operate in Area A in the event of a "ticking bomb" scenario but would significantly raise the bar for permitting such operations. Today it is up to a division commander to approve the entry of IDF forces into Area A, but under the Israeli proposal, it would be up to the Central Command chief.
2) Israel proposed the significant reduction of IDF operations in Ramallah and Jericho as a pilot program. If the step achieved results and the situation stabilized, IDF operations would be reduced in other West Bank cities in coordination with the Palestinians.
3) Israel has demanded that Palestinian security forces operate more forcefully in cases where they receive intelligence on terrorist groups operating in or based in Area A.
4) Netanyahu and Ya'alon approved the proposal but have made additional demands of the Palestinians, such as a campaign against incitement. But Netanyahu's main demand was to achieve diplomatic understandings with the PA under which the Palestinians would recognize Israel's right to operate in Area A.
After generals Mordechai and Numa presented the proposal to their Palestinian counterparts, the Palestinians updated President Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli officials said the Palestinian side faced a dilemma and differing opinions on the proposal.
Security chiefs thought it could help create calm and saw it as a way to present an achievement to the people, but Abbas and other officials had doubts and would not agree to Israel's demand to formally recognize Israel's right to operate militarily in Area A, contrary to the Oslo Accords.
Senior Israelis say negotiators on both sides have encountered difficulties for political reasons. Netanyahu has not agreed to advance the process without receiving something from the Palestinians he can pass through the security cabinet.
A source close to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, criticized the proposal. "The transfer of security authority over areas A and B amounts to outsourcing the security of Israeli citizens to the Palestinian Authority," he said.
The source said the proposal "means moving backward after the achievements of Operation Defensive Shield, and we will fight against it with all our might. Only the IDF will defend Israeli citizens."
In any case, the response Netanyahu demanded from Abbas put the Palestinian leader in an impossible situation: the need to formally agree to let the IDF operate in Palestinian territory, which would signify a concession of sovereignty.
Senior Israelis said that despite the difficulties in the talks, the initiative was still alive, "but it will not come to fruition unless we also receive things from the Palestinians," as one Israeli put it.