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Palestinians: Israel to leave 4 West Bank cities

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Ariel Sharon
Mahmoud Abbas

GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Israeli forces will withdraw from four West Bank cities this week and hand over security control to the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian officials said Sunday.

The report came as a crowd estimated to be more than 100,000 people demonstrated in Jerusalem against a plan to pull Jewish settlements out of parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

The plan, proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, calls for the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, and the pullout of Israeli military forces deployed to defend them.

Four small Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank would also be evacuated.

Protesters were demanding that Sharon's plan be put to a national referendum.

Meanwhile, the pullout of Israeli forces from the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and Jericho is expected on Wednesday, Palestinian officials said.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz stopped short of confirming the report. After a meeting Saturday night with Palestinian security chief Mohammad Dahlan, he told Israeli radio on Sunday, "It is a matter of days."

"We haven't concluded yet which towns or when," Mofaz said. "It is very possible that in some of the Palestinian towns, the handing over of responsibility will happen in the coming days. We are due to meet again to finalize the issues."

The meeting between Mofaz and Dahlan was positive, a Dahlan aide told CNN.

The two discussed confidence-building steps such as the possible release of Palestinian prisoners and a proposed end to Israel's arrests and targeted killings of Palestinians.

They also discussed the proposed meeting on February 8 between Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Thawing relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority followed Abbas' election this month to replace the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died of an unknown illness in November.

Sharon said Thursday night he believes the Palestinians have created conditions for a "historic breakthrough" in relations. "It seems that there is a positive approach [by Palestinians] regarding the war on terrorism and advancing the diplomatic process," Sharon said during a speech in Tel Aviv. (Full story)

Reining in of militants by the Palestinian Authority has been a key Israeli demand before resumption of peace talks. Abbas has deployed thousands of Palestinian security forces along the Israeli-Gaza border to prevent terrorist attacks. (Full story)

Ha'aretz has reported that Abbas has reached a provisional agreement with the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas to participate in a cease-fire of terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.

Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has acknowledged responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as attacks against the Israeli military. Israel and the U.S. State Department consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

As for Israel, it has told Palestinian officials it's stopping the targeted killings of senior members of Palestinian militant groups, Israeli sources said Wednesday.

Ending such killings by Israel has been a key demand by Palestinian militants in exchange for a cease-fire on Israeli targets.

Meanwhile, the date of the tentatively scheduled meeting between Sharon and Abbas depends on the outcome of preliminary talks between officials representing both leaders, Abbas' spokesman, Hassan Abu Libdeh, has said.

On Saturday, David Baker, an official in Sharon's office, said, "The meeting would be in order to make further progress, and it's contingent on Palestinians continuing to fight terror."

Sharon and Abbas met in 2003 during a push toward a U.S.-led peace plan that later stalled. Abbas served as prime minister under Arafat at the time.

Journalist Avivit Dalgoshen contributed to this report.

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