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Israel Hands Over West Bank Town

Israel completed the handover to the West Bank town of Tulkarem to Palestinian control Tuesday, ceremonially unlocking a gate that had blocked traffic between the town and main points in the West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian commanders sealed the handover with a handshake at the gate, which was later hauled off by an Israeli truck. The transfer of control to Palestinian forces, which began Monday night, has nudged along a conciliation process that has proceeded fitfully since leaders announced an end to four years of bloodshed.

The transfer could help Palestinian officials carry out a new directive restricting weapons in the hands of militants, who insist they'll comply only if Israel withdraws from West Bank towns. Tulkarem residents welcomed the handover, but said they didn't think it signaled a big move toward broader Palestinian-Israeli peace.

Also Tuesday, about 10,000 supporters of the violent Islamic Hamas marched through the streets of Nablus to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of their spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza last year.

The marchers filled the center of the West Bank city, singing and waving green Hamas flags. Dozens of masked militants marched with the crowd but did not carry guns.

Tulkarem, located in a sensitive position on the line between Israel and the West Bank, is the second of five West Bank towns where Palestinian security forces are to assume responsibility. Its transfer had stalled over whether to include nearby villages and roads.

Similar issues, pitting Israeli security concerns against Palestinian suspicions of Israeli foot-dragging, had delayed the handover of the first town, Jericho, and are liable to re-emerge in negotiations on the other three.

Since Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an end to bloodshed at a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt, violence has dropped considerably, but not all confidence-building measures — transfer of the towns and release of additional Palestinian prisoners — have been implemented.

Also Tuesday, Army Radio reported that Sharon received a report detailing final plans for the evacuation of Jewish settlements, recommending that houses in four West Bank settlements be destroyed but leaving infrastructure intact in Gaza.

Israel is set to evacuate 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four in the northern West Bank this summer. The document outlines different phases of the pullback and designates responsibility for each operation, the network said, adding that it deals with the actual withdrawal and the legal, economic and human aspects of the plan.

In other developments, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz issued an order banning Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel until Sunday, as a security measure for the Jewish holiday of Purim, officials said.

Such closures are routine around Jewish holidays. Purim is characterized by parades and festivals, and security officials are concerned that gatherings of Israelis could be targeted by Palestinian bombers.

Before the gate was unlocked Tuesday, Palestinians had to make a four-mile loop to get onto the main road that connected Tulkarem with Nablus, the biggest city in the West Bank. Nablus, which is not slated for handover because Israel considers it a center of militant activity, is closed to vehicles, with entry only on foot.

Tulkarem residents said they expected more order in their lives now that Palestinians have reassumed control of internal police matters, and Israeli troops were less likely to come into the town to make arrests. But they didn't foresee more than incremental changes.

"We'll have traffic cops, we won't have the chaos in the streets that we have today. They'll be able to stop cars from being stolen, and movement in and out of the town will become easier now that they've removed the gate," said Nashat Salem, 46, owner of an electronics store in the center of town.

"But on the path to peace, I'm not so sure we're going anywhere," Salem said.

Palestinian fugitives would benefit the most, saying Israel agreed not to chase them as long as they remain in Tulkarem. "Tonight is the first night I'll sleep at home without worrying the army is going to come banging on my door," said Husni Abu Zgheib, 30, of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group affiliated with Abbas' Fatah faction.

Israeli and Palestinian security officers hammered out a compromise over Tulkarem in two meetings Monday.

The main sticking point had been two villages north of Tulkarem, where Israel says an Islamic Jihad cell responsible for a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv operates.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was not satisfied with Palestinian actions against militants there, but that contacts over the villages would continue, with the intent of handing them over later. Israeli forces arrested four Islamic Jihad militants in the area early Monday, the military said.

Palestinians have said that they cannot be expected to enforce security measures in towns and villages where they are not in control.

The entire handover process got off to a limping start after the summit. Talks over the isolated oasis town of Jericho bogged down for weeks over which roadblocks Israel would remove and how much territory the Palestinians would receive. That transfer took place last week.

Difficulties over the first two towns could spell trouble ahead for the others. Next in line is Qalqiliya, which is located on the line between Israel and the West Bank. Bethlehem, three miles from Jerusalem, is next, to be followed by Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government.

Israel could raise security concerns at each stage, dragging out the process. Israel points to more than four years of Palestinian attacks, including more than 100 suicide bombings, to explain its focus on security issues. Palestinians say the Israeli reservations amount to bad faith.