Israel is continuing its redeployment from West Bank population centers despite a number of recent incidents that threatened to delay the process.
Israel froze its redeployment plans last Friday after several incidents – including the kidnapping of two Israeli border police and the ambush of an Israeli jeep – prompted Israeli leaders to publicly question whether the timetable for withdrawals was too speedy.
“It is possible that we will have to delay redeployment,” said Health Minister Ephraim Sneh. “Why have we adopted a gradual process? So we will have the ability to stop if we are not satisfied” with Palestinian security measures.
The two border police were kidnapped Nov. 29 in Jenin by members of the Black Panthers, a local Palestinian vigilante group. They were released after Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat reportedly joined in negotiations to end the kidnapping peacefully.
After the incident, a Palestinian military court in the West Bank Jericho enclave sentenced two of the kidnappers to nine years in prison with hard labor.
The kidnapping had been triggered by another incident the same day in the town of Kabatiya, located near Jenin, where Israeli security forces sought to arrest Samir Zakarneh, a Palestinian terrorist on Israel’s wanted list.
Zakarneh, who was later taken into custody by Palestinian officials, was subsequently sentenced to five years in jail. He was convicted on charges of leaving Jericho, where he had been confined as a result of a previous conviction.
In another incident in the Jenin area, two Israeli soldiers were wounded Nov. 30 when gunmen opened fire on an army jeep that was escorting an Israeli bus near the Jewish settlement of Shaked.
That same day in Nablus, 18 Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli troops.
These incidents prompted Israeli leaders to warn last Friday that they would slow the troop withdrawals unless Palestinian officials did more to protect Israelis.
But on Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials met and agreed to continue the redeployment as planned.
Israel completed its withdrawal from the West Bank town of Jenin in mid- November. It has committed itself to withdraw from five other Palestinian population centers – Tulkarm, Kalkilya, Nablus, Bethlehem and Ramallah – before the end of the month.
In Bethlehem, where the redeployment is scheduled to be completed – and celebrated – by Christmas, hundreds of local residents welcomed an advance group of 12 Palestinian officers as they arrived at the district coordinating office in nearby Beit Jalla.
To this end, work on the Bethlehem bypass road resumed at full speed in a push to complete its construction before Christmas.
The road is part of a network of bypass roads that will be used by Jewish settlers and Israeli security forces after Israeli troops withdraw from the West bank population centers.
Environmental groups, which said the road would damage the landscape of a national park, met Saturday night with Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid to resolve the dispute. “I believe the bypass roads are quite helpful,” Sarid said Sunday. “This is not an ideal solution, but it is the only solution I know which might improve the security of the Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank.”
Ben-Eliezer was optimistic that the Bethlehem road would be completed within two weeks. But he acknowledged that some problems could be encountered with the Halhoul road, located south of the West Bank town of Hebron, in which Israeli troops are scheduled to redeploy in March.
Construction of the Halhoul road involves the expropriation of Palestinian- owned agricultural land, a situation that prompted Palestinians to clash Sunday with Israeli troops at the contested site.
In an unlikely alliance, the Palestinians’ cause was taken up by a group of Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba and Hebron, who maintained that Palestinian anger over the expropriation could be ultimately turned against the settlers themselves.
A delegation of settlers me Sunday with Deputy Foreign Minister Eli Dayan, who promised to convey their concerns to the appropriate authorities.