Israelis, Palestinians take steps for peace


JERUSALEM, March 19 (JTA) — After a month of deadlock and mutual recriminations, the Israeli-Palestinian track is again showing distinct signs of life.

Days before the scheduled resumption of talks in the United States, Israel’s Cabinet approved the transfer of an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

The Cabinet decision took place amid repeated indications that the Palestinian Authority is cooperating with Israel to clamp down on terrorism.

Over the weekend, Palestinian security officials detained several Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip who were suspected of planning to carry out terror attacks against Israel.

The officials also uncovered some 70 pounds of explosives hidden in a kindergarten in a Gaza refugee camp.

One of two Hamas activists Palestinian security forces detained last week near the West Bank town of Nablus led these forces to the explosives.

The two suspects are believed to have headed a Hamas terrorist cell that Israeli security forces uncovered earlier this month in the Israeli Arab town of Taibe. The two had been on the run since a March 2 shootout in Taibe, where members of an Israeli anti-terror squad killed four Hamas members and captured another.

Sunday’s 16-6 Cabinet vote came after the Inner Security Cabinet, a smaller group of ministers that focuses on security issues, last week approved the withdrawal map specifying the 6.1 percent land transfer.

The ministers who voted Sunday against the move included members of the pro-settler National Religious Party, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the Russian immigrant Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party.

The Prime Minister’s Office said the redeployment, originally slated to be carried out in January, would likely take place Tuesday — the same day that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were scheduled to meet at a Washington military base.

Under the withdrawal plan, 5.1 percent of the West Bank, now under Palestinian civilian control and Israeli security control, will be handed over to full Palestinian control. An additional 1 percent will go from full Israeli control to full Palestinian control.

As a result of the handover, the Palestinian Authority will have full or partial control over 39.8 percent of the West Bank, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Sunday.

He added that 60 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian population “will be under full Palestinian authority” after the latest withdrawal.

The withdrawal will include three Arab villages near Jerusalem — Zatara, Beitunia and Ubeidiya.

It will also include areas near the West Bank towns of Jericho, Jenin Bethlehem and Hebron, bringing the Palestinians one step closer to achieving the territorial contiguity they want in a future state.

Prior to the Cabinet vote, Jewish settlers lined a highway near Jerusalem to protest the redeployment.

The Palestinian Authority had rejected the redeployment maps that Israel originally submitted, claiming that they did not include any densely populated Arab areas.

The Palestinians were particularly interested in areas near Jerusalem, where they want to establish the capital of a future state.

This demand triggered vigorous opposition from hawks in both the opposition and within Barak’s governing coalition, on the grounds it would endanger Jewish areas and lead to the division of the city.

Such pressure was attributed to Barak’s decision last week to reverse himself and not include Anata, a West Bank village on Jerusalem’s fringes, in the latest redeployment.

The decision angered dovish members of Barak’s Cabinet, who said Anata was never part of Jerusalem and criticized the prime minister for capitulating to pressure from the right.

When Barak initially indicated that he planned to transfer control of Anata and two other villages near Jerusalem, Israeli hard-liners, including Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, flocked to Jewish settlements near Jerusalem to show their opposition to the plan.

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