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Palestinians Take Over Jericho

Israel has returned Jericho to Palestinian security control, a confidence-building measure aimed at getting peace talks back on track. Jericho is the first of several West Bank cities to be handed over.

The handover was agreed in principle, last week, but the exchange was delayed by disagreement over the dismantling of Israeli checkpoints.

In a compromise, Israel dismantled one barrier, Wednesday, but two others are to remain in place for another month. Jericho is the first of five towns to be handed to the Palestinians, under terms of an agreement reached at a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt, last month.

Jericho sits some 300 meters below sea level in the Jordan River valley, just a few kilometers from the Dead Sea. It has been a quiet place and rarely figured in the Israeli-Palestinian violence of the past 4.5 years.

Israeli travel restrictions have severely hampered daily life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, during this time. Palestinian officials hope the removal of barriers and the return of Palestinian security forces to the streets will send a positive message to ordinary Palestinians that an informal truce with Israel is beginning to pay off.

Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned the Palestinians against releasing militants jailed in Jericho, including Ahmed Saadat, who Israel says ordered the assassination of a government minister in 2001.

The West Bank town,Tulkarem, is next on the list to be returned to Palestinian control, to be followed by nearby Qalqiliya. No date has been set for the handover of the remaining two - Bethlehem and Ramallah.

The largest Palestinian city, Nablus, is not on the list. Neither are Hebron and Jenin. Israel considers the three to be centers of militant activity and the source of most of the suicide bombers and others who have attacked Israel.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in Cairo for talks with militant leaders on a proposed a one-year stop to attacks on Israeli targets.

Some Palestinian militants are demanding Israel release prisoners and stop targeted killings of militant leaders, in exchange for their promise of a ceasefire.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says a temporary halt in attacks is not enough to resume peace negotiations. He says the Palestinian leadership must also dismantle the militant groups.