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Israel to transfer control of 5 West Bank cities to Palestinians

JERUSALEM—Israel is planning to transfer security control of five West Bank cities to the Palestinians in the coming days, the latest in a flurry of gestures aimed at paving the way for a high-level meeting between the warring sides.

The long-sidelined U.S. "road map" to peace calls for such a withdrawal, and Israeli and Palestinian officials now say they're ready to resume negotiations to end more than four years of bloodshed.

Sunday's announcement follows similar conciliatory gestures over the past week that include an unofficial Palestinian cease-fire and the deployment of Palestinian security patrols in the Gaza Strip to prevent attacks against Israeli targets.

The announcement, however, was greeted with Palestinian skepticism and with a reminder that there's strong opposition in Israel to such troop withdrawals.

More than 100,000 Israelis, by unofficial media counts, gathered Sunday near the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem to protest a separate plan to pull Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer. The protestors demanded a referendum on the Gaza plan.

The most important step toward ending the violence will come on or after Feb. 8, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are to meet. With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled to arrive at the same time, both sides said they want a summit that produces results.

"It's an important meeting, not a photo op," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "There need to be tangible results."

But Israel doesn't appear to embrace the wide-reaching agenda sought by Abbas, which includes the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, a formal truce and a resumption of peace talks.

"We need to see a more serious war on terror, not just surface quiet," Israeli Health Minister Danny Naveh told state-run Israel Army Radio on Sunday. "We need to wait and see and not celebrate yet."

Palestinian officials expressed similar pessimism at Israel's handover announcement, which on Sunday appeared to be more of a paper maneuver than a reshuffling of Israeli troops near the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Bethlehem and Jericho.

Palestinian Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah called the gesture hollow, given Israel's recent decisions to confiscate East Jerusalem properties owned by absentee Arab landowners and to resume construction of a controversial barrier in and around the West Bank.

"You cannot give from the left and take from the right. We don't want the Israelis to exploit the space of optimism created by Palestinian steps and try to create facts on ground that are only meant to perpetuate occupation," Abdullah said.

Sharon's support at home also appears shaky. His government's announcement was quickly overshadowed Sunday night by the demonstration in Jerusalem, which Israeli television stations called the largest in the city's history.

The handover to the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank could begin on Wednesday, according to security officials on both sides. Under the deal reached by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaza and former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, Israeli soldiers will withdraw to positions they held prior to their March 2002 move into the West Bank.

The U.S.-sponsored "road map" calls for a deeper Israeli pullback to positions held prior to the current Palestinian uprising, which began in late September 2000.

No Israeli troops are stationed in the five cities to be turned over to the Palestinians, but the military periodically conducts raids there. Such operations would end when the handover is complete, the officials said.

A similar handover plan was shelved in August 2003 after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 23 Israelis in an attack on a Jerusalem bus.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Mohammed Najib contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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