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Israel stalls transfer of Palestinian town

Demands over wanted militants delay Qalqilya's handover

From Yoav Appel

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's defense minister has delayed transferring military control of a third Palestinian town to Palestinian security forces, ministry officials said Sunday.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided to delay the handover of the West Bank town of Qalqilya because demands on the Palestinians had not been met, the officials said.

The officials would say only that the demands involved wanted Palestinian militants.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said earlier this month that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas "must start to eliminate the terrorist organizations." (Full story)

Abbas persuaded militant groups to commit to a temporary cease-fire March 17. (Full story)

The "road map" to peace for the Middle East -- sponsored by the so-called Mideast Quartet of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- calls for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence, followed by a "final and comprehensive" settlement of the conflict and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The stalled road map calls for the Palestinian Authority to dismantle "terrorist capabilities and infrastructure," including confiscating illegal weapons and consolidating security authority.

And the road map calls for Israel to end settlement construction and dismantle illegal West Bank outposts built after Sharon took office in March 2001.

But Israel said last week it plans to build 3,500 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, drawing condemnation from Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat. (Full story)

The mayor of Qalqilya accused Israel of failing to hold up its end of the bargain.

"The Israelis aren't serious regarding negotiating with the Palestinians," Maarof Zahran said.

"Every time they have a different pretext to not fulfill their duties," he said. "The Palestinians are making their utmost, but the Israelis are blocking and not helping them."

Israel has turned over control of two West Bank towns in recent weeks, though both handovers were initially delayed.

Jericho was turned over March 16 and Tulkarem began changing hands March 20.

Despite the postponement in Qalqilya, the defense ministry officials said, the transfer of security control to Palestinian forces would continue.

The Palestinian Authority had been in control of the areas in question under the terms of the 1993 Oslo Accords, but Israel returned in 2000 in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

During peace talks in Egypt on February 8, Abbas and Sharon announced a truce, with Israel pledging to gradually cede control of all five major Palestinian population centers. (Full story)

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