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Israel returns Tulkarem to Palestinian control

Defense Ministry approves units for West Bank settlement

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Israel has approved plans to build new housing units.
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel turned over security control of the West Bank city of Tulkarem to the Palestinian Authority on Monday after negotiators reached an agreement earlier in the day, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The IDF said villages in the vicinity of Tulkarem will remain under Israeli control for the time being, but Israel will open a gate connecting Tulkarem to villages east of the city. That gate has been closed until now.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met twice before finding agreement on the handover and further meetings are scheduled in the near future, the IDF said.

Palestinian security sources confirmed that an agreement on the transfer of security control in Tulkarem was reached.

Palestinian sources said the roadblock connecting Tulkarem to the villages on the east will be opened Tuesday at 9 a.m. local time.

Israel last week turned over security control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority and is scheduled to transfer security control of three more cities to the Palestinians, in addition to Tulkarem. (Full story)

The Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz reported that Palestinians wanted control of the Tulkarem villages as well, but the IDF said an Islamic Jihad cell blamed for a February 25 suicide attack in Tel Aviv is based there and refused to give the villages up. Five Israelis died in the Tel Aviv attack. (Full story)

The Palestinian Authority had been in control of the entire area under the terms of the Oslo Accords, but Israel moved back into the area in 2000 in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Israeli forces began pulling back from Jericho last Wednesday, but the signing of a formal agreement to hand over control of the city was stalled at the last minute.

Without offering specifics, the IDF said there were "technical problems," but the problems were resolved during a meeting with Palestinian officials and the transfer document was formally signed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last Thursday welcomed a move by Palestinian militant groups to stop attacks through the rest of the year, but also said they cannot continue to exist as "armed" organizations. (Full story)

The groups issued a joint statement after talks outside Cairo, Egypt. Sharon called that "a positive first step."

New housing units

Israelis and Palestinians, however, were at odds Monday over Israel's plans to build 3,500 residential housing units in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper, the government is pushing the plan so it can connect Maale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, to Jerusalem.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz gave final authorization, a spokeswoman in his office said Monday. The move gives final approval to plans that have been backed by different Israeli governments over the past five years.

The announcement immediately brought condemnation from Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat.

"If this is carried out, it means kissing the peace process goodbye," Erakat said. "If Mofaz wants to determine the future of Jerusalem by settlements, the question to President Bush is 'what is left for negotiations?'

"Dictation will not work. Such decisions will lead to one thing: destroying the peace process," he said.

A halt to Israeli settlement construction is a key demand in the stalled "road map" to peace for the Middle East.

The road map -- 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.

According to the plan, Israel must dismantle West Bank outposts built after Sharon took office in March 2001.

CNN's Guy Raz and Michal Zippori contributed to this report.

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