JERUSALEM – A Palestinian negotiator said Tuesday he has reached final agreement with Israel on the handover of the West Bank town of Jericho to Palestinian control, including the removal of the main Israeli roadblock in the area, in what would be an important precedent for pullbacks from four more West Bank towns in coming weeks.
However, Israeli military officials said negotiations are continuing.
In Israel, hundreds of Jewish settlers and their supporters blocked several main roads during evening rush hour Monday, scuffling with police, burning tires and causing traffic jams, to protest Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer. Police dragged protesters away and detained dozens.
The protest came as Jewish extremists increasingly targeted politicians who support the withdrawal. Several Cabinet ministers have received threatening letters in recent days, alarming law enforcement officials who fear ultranationalists could try to harm Israeli leaders.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news – web sites) told legislators Monday that he has hired private security guards to protect the grave of his wife, Lily, for fear it would be desecrated by opponents to his withdrawal plan.
The handover of five West Bank towns to Palestinian control was agreed on in principle by Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting last week. However, a last-minute dispute over the removal of roadblocks and the area to be handed over held up the first Israeli pullback, from Jericho.
The Palestinians consider Jericho a test case for future withdrawals.
They insisted that all roadblocks surrounding the town be removed, and that the adjacent village of Al Awja be included in the handover. In the past, Israel temporarily pulled out of some West Bank towns, but left roadblocks in place, severely restricting Palestinian travel.
The United States has urged Israel to move quickly to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians in order to boost support for Abbas. A removal of roadblocks would be the clearest sign of change, but Israel is reluctant, citing security concerns. Israel set up a network of roadblocks in the West Bank after the outbreak of fighting in 2000, to keep Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen out of Israel.
Four years of violence largely bypassed Jericho, isolated from the rest of the West Bank population centers. Israeli forces rarely entered the town, but soldiers at roadblocks control entry and exit.
In negotiations on the handover of Jericho, Israeli officials wanted to keep the main roadblock in place. Israel also balked at handing over Al Awja, since a highway used by Israelis runs through it.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who lives in Jericho, said Tuesday that Israel in the end agreed to remove the main roadblock and to withdraw from Al Awja. Erekat said the agreement came in a meeting with Sharon aide Dov Weisglass late Monday.
However, Israeli army officials said no final decision was made and that negotiations would continue. They said security officials from both sides would meet Tuesday.
Later Tuesday, parliament was to begin a two-day debate on the Gaza withdrawal plan, to be capped by a final vote on the pullout Wednesday. Sharon is assured a wide margin of victory, despite intense opposition from hardliners, including members of his Likud Party.
On Sunday, Sharon plans to ask his Cabinet to endorse the pullout, authorized in principle several months ago. The procedural vote is necessary because the Justice Ministry ruled that Jewish settlers who will be forced out of their homes must be given five months’ notice. The Cabinet will be asked later to vote on each of the withdrawal’s four phases as they come up.