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Another West Bank Deal Reported

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Palestinian and Israeli security officers reached agreement Monday on handing over the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Israeli and Palestinian sources said after the second meeting of the day.

The officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the handover would take place on Tuesday.

In other Mideast developments:

  • Easter Holy Week is off to a peaceful start in Jerusalem, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. A lull in Mideast violence has brought the biggest turnout of pilgrims to the Holy Land in five years.
  • Israel is planning a major settlement expansion in the West Bank, building 3,500 new housing units that will connect the big West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim with disputed East Jerusalem. It's part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy to cement Israel's grip on the Biblical heartland of the West Bank, while getting rid of the overpopulated Gaza Strip, reports Berger. Settlement expansion violates the roadmap peace plan, but President Bush said last year that Israel could expect to keep some West Bank settlement blocs under a final peace accord.
  • The Palestinian Interior Ministry has begun placing restrictions on the use of weapons by militants, security officials said Monday, a step toward fulfilling a long-standing Israeli demand that the armed groups be dismantled.

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed on Feb. 8 that Israel would withdraw from five West Bank towns it entered after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000: Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Tulkarem, Jericho and Bethlehem. But the pullback has been delayed.

    Israel so far has withdrawn only from Jericho. The dispute in Tulkarem had focused on control of several roads and nearby villages, negotiators said.

    Palestinian officials condemned the West Bank building project, saying it threatens peace prospects.

    The road map, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state, requires Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank. It also requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Both sides have failed to meet their obligations.

    However, the Palestinian order to militants appeared to be a first step toward disarming gunmen.

    Senior Palestinian security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Interior Ministry has distributed a letter outlining weapons restrictions to hundreds of militants in the West Bank.

    The restrictions limit militants to a single weapon, and bar them from loading the weapons or carrying them in public, the official said. He said it also requires them to register their weapons with the ministry.

    The ministry has asked militants to sign the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.

    Israel welcomed the Palestinian move. "To see this as the ultimate solution to disarming all the terrorists is far from reality, but it's a good first step," said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    Leaders of the al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant faction affiliated with Abbas' Fatah faction, said they were considering the offer, but would not sign the pledge until Israel completes its planned withdrawal from the five West Bank cities.

    "Once Israel withdraws, we'll be able to sign it," said Kamel Ghannam, a group leader in Ramallah.

    He added, however, that the group remains opposed to giving up its arms altogether. "We're afraid this is the first step toward disarming us," he said.

    Meanwhile, Jerusalem was seeing the best turnout of pilgrims for Easter since Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted five years ago.

    "Conditions have improved recently; I'm in the hands of the Lord and He told me to come here," Paul Champoux of Ann Arbor, Mich., told Berger.

    "It gives me a lot of historical, cultural background to the Bible, shows how it's set in real history, in real events, real places," Champoux added.

    Israel's battered tourism industry is recovering and no one is happier than Palestinian shopkeepers in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Tourism is good for peace, and peace is good for tourism.