Under US pressure, Israel relaxes control of West Bank towns

By Aron Heller
Associated Press / June 26, 2009
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JERUSALEM - Bowing to pressure from Washington, Israel granted US-trained Palestinian security forces greater autonomy in four main West Bank towns, Israeli and Palestinian defense officials said yesterday.

The ability of Palestinian security forces to maintain law and order is key to Mideast peacemaking because Israel needs to be convinced that a future Palestinian state won’t threaten its security.

Israel already has turned over limited security control to Palestinians in three other West Bank towns, but the military said that forces in Qalqiliya, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Ramallah would be the first to operate around the clock without Israeli clearance.

In a statement, the Israeli military said Palestinian security forces “will be able to extend their hours of operation’’ in the towns but emphasized that Israeli forces would continue to operate in the West Bank “in order to thwart terrorist operations.’’

The move stops short of a full withdrawal from these towns.

The Israeli military doesn’t routinely patrol West Bank towns and cities, but frequently conducts nighttime and occasional daytime arrest raids.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the step does not go far enough.

“What is required a full cessation of military raids into Palestinian areas,’’ he told reporters in Ramallah.

Israel pulled out of major West Bank population centers in the 1990s but reentered them after the Palestinian uprising against Israel reignited in late 2000. Palestinians have long sought an Israeli pullback from those towns as a reassertion of sovereignty.

The United States has been training thousands of forces in the West Bank in preparation for future Palestinian statehood. United States officials involved in the training have been pressing Israel to allow the Palestinian forces more freedom.

The European Union has contributed about $55 million for equipment and training, said Jose Vericat, an EU official.

Mashaal yesterday praised what he described as “Obama’s new language toward Hamas.’’

“It is the first step in the right direction toward a dialogue without conditions, and we welcome this,’’ he said.

However, he said the United States must respect the Palestinians’ democratic choice; Hamas overwhelmingly won Palestinian Parliament elections in 2006.

The Hamas chief in exile also said Obama remains too sympathetic toward Israel, despite the president’s pledge to work hard for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“Obama spoke widely about the suffering of Jews and their Holocaust in Europe but ignored the talk about our suffering and Israel’s Holocaust that has been going on for decades against our people,’’ he said.

Mashaal also denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said in a recent speech that Israel would retain sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, keep building in Jewish settlements, and demand Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.