The Palestinian Authority cabinet has given preliminary approval to an Israeli proposal for a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from some Palestinian areas, in return for the Authority's crackdown on Palestinian militants.
In an official statement released after the cabinet meeting, the Palestinian Authority said it accepts the Israeli plan as the first step of a full withdrawal to the boundaries of pre-September 2000, when the current Palestinian uprising began.
The statement also called on the Israelis to return confiscated weapons to the Palestinian Authority to allow the Palestinian police to maintain security.
Palestinian officials say they want further clarification of some points in the plan and hope to discuss these with Israeli officials.
Late Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Benyamin Ben-Eliezer met with top Palestinian security officials and proposed a phased withdrawal, beginning with the Gaza Strip, if the Palestinians are ready to take over security arrangements there.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Perez said the plan offers a good opportunity, and he held out the prospect that some West Bank towns, such as Bethlehem and Hebron could be included in the early withdrawal phase.
At the same time, a high level Palestinian delegation has left for Washington for talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials. Security issues and Palestinian efforts at civil reform will be high on the agenda. Delegation leader Saeb Erekat said he hopes the meetings will allow the Palestinian voice to be heard in the American administration.
Meanwhile, Israel's army is pressing its offensive against Palestinian militants. Several suspected militants have been reported killed in raids in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel has also stepped up its demolition of family homes of suspected Palestinian militants. On Tuesday, Israel's Supreme Court upheld the army's right to demolish the homes of suspected militants without warning. U.S. officials have criticized the policy. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said that while Israel has the right to defend itself, destroying the homes of innocent civilians will not solve Israel's security problems.