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Israel to Hand Over  Control of 2 West Bank Cities - 2003-08-15

Israel is planning to hand over control for security in two West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority early next week. The move is aimed at helping to advance the international "roadmap" to peace in the Middle East.

Israel is preparing to pull its soldiers out of Jericho and Qaliqilya in the West Bank in the next few days, Israeli security officials said Friday.

The deal was reached in late night talks Thursday between Israeli defense minister, Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian security minister, Mohammed Dahlan.

As part of the agreement, Mr. Dahlan has reportedly guaranteed that the Palestinian police will prevent wanted militants in the cities from carrying out terror attacks.

Under the plan, the Palestinian Authority will also submit proposals to regain security control over two other West Bank cities, Ramallah and Tulkarem, which Israel will consider over the next 10 days.

Israel Television reported that the deal will also allow Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to make a "one-time" visit to the Gaza Strip and return afterwards to his headquarters in Ramallah.

Mr. Arafat has not left the area for more than a year for fear that Israel will deny him re-entry to the West Bank.

Israeli officials said the deal would be canceled if there were any further terror attacks during the coming week.

Israeli troops moved into Palestinian self-rule areas across the West Bank last year following a campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings.

The Israeli government promised that the soldiers would be withdrawn once the security situation had improved.

Israel on Friday also set free 73 Palestinian prisoners at military checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Most of the inmates had been convicted of residing in Israel illegally and had been slated for release on Tuesday.

Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, ordered that their releases be delayed in response to two Palestinian suicide bombings that same day.