Vol. 4 Num 36 Wed. July 02, 2003  

Abbas eyes Israeli pullout from WB within 6 weeks

Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas said Tuesday he believed the Israeli army would withdraw from all positions occupied in the West Bank since the start of the Palestinian uprising within six weeks.

"I expect Israel will complete the withdrawal (from all reoccupied Palestinian areas) within a month or a month and a half," he told a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah.

Abbas said he would meet later Tuesday with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, to discuss the necessary steps for that withdrawal.

"Now we are looking to see how Israel will return to the borders of September 28, 2000 because it is an important step that is in the roadmap," Abbas said, referring to the date when the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, broke out.

"Today we will discuss with Sharon about the schedule" for the withdrawal, he said.

He said the timeframe was important because the Palestinian security apparatus did not currently have the ability to cope with an immediate takeover of security responsibility for the entire West Bank.

"(At the moment) we do not have the ability and we need to create the ability very fast. We need it to carry out this programme," he said.

Abbas said earlier the meeting with Sharon in Jerusalem would cover an array of roadmap-related issues, including the possible revival of the joint committees that existed before the start of the uprising.

The two men are to hold a joint press conference at Sharon's office in Jerusalem at 5:40 pm (1440 GMT) ahead of the evening meeting, Israeli officials said Monday.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army is to withdraw from the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem and its environs Wednesday, just three days after pulling out of part of the Gaza Strip, Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said.

"We will hand over security control for Bethlehem to the Palestinians on Wednesday," Mofaz told public radio Tuesday, confirming information revealed by a Palestinian source a day earlier.

"This withdrawal will be a test to see whether the security of Israelis, including those in Judea and Samaria, is assured," he said, using the Biblical name for the West Bank.

Israeli security officials were meeting with their Palestinian counterparts at a military base in the area to finalise the details of the withdrawal, public radio said.

But Avi Dichter, head of Israel's internal security service Shin Beth, warned that Israel would not be able to continue transferring further security responsibility to the Palestinians in the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority did not start disarming and disbanding militant groups in the Gaza Strip, the radio said.

Israel had stressed as much several weeks ago, the radio quoted him as saying.

Four Palestinian militant groups, including the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, announced a three-month ceasefire on Sunday, which was quickly followed by a partial Israeli withdrawal from the northern Gaza Strip.

But Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom said Monday Israel was not a party to the ceasefire, which was an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and militant gruops.

Like the United States, the Israeli government is not satisfied with a ceasefire alone and is demanding militant groups be disarmed.