Israel reduces control of 4 West Bank towns

Bowing to pressure from Washington, Israel granted U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces greater autonomy in four main West Bank towns, Israeli and Palestinian defense officials said Thursday, Associated Press reported.

The ability of Palestinian security forces to maintain law and order is key to Mideast peacemaking because Israel needs to be convinced that a future Palestinian state won't threaten its security.

Israel already has turned over limited security control to Palestinians in three other West Bank towns, but the military said that forces in Qalqiliya, Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah would be the first to operate around the clock without Israeli clearance.

In a statement, the Israeli military said Palestinian security forces "will be able to extend their hours of operation" in the towns but emphasized that Israeli forces would continue to operate in the West Bank "in order to thwart terrorist operations."

The move stops short of a full withdrawal from these towns.

The Israeli military doesn't routinely patrol West Bank towns and cities, but frequently conducts nighttime and occasional daytime arrest raids.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the step does not go far enough. "What is required a full cessation of military raids into Palestinian areas," he told reporters in Ramallah.

Israel pulled out of major West Bank population centers in the 1990s but re-entered them after the Palestinian uprising against Israel reignited in late 2000. Palestinians have long sought an Israeli pullback from those towns as a reassertion of sovereignty.

The U.S. has been training thousands of forces in the West Bank in preparation for future Palestinian statehood. U.S. officials involved in the training have been pressing Israel to allow the Palestinian forces more freedom.

The European Union has contributed about $55 million (40 million euros) for equipment and training, said Jose Vericat, an EU official.

"We are doing our job protecting our people and there is no need for Israeli forces to enter our territories under the pretext of security needs," said Adnan Dmeiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security forces.

Another apparent result of U.S. pressure has been the recent removal of some of the hundreds of Israeli roadblocks, including major obstacles near the city of Nablus and town of Jericho. Israel insists it needs the checkpoints to stop attackers but has also said it is committed to making life easier for Palestinians.

Israel, however, has been wary of a complete handover to Palestinian security.

During the Palestinian uprising, some Palestinian forces turned their guns against Israeli targets. And police loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, were unable to hold back the onslaught of Islamic Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in 2007. Abbas now only controls the West Bank, while Gaza remains under Hamas control.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called on President Barack Obama to withdraw his advisers from the West Bank. Speaking in Damascus, Syria, Mashaal said, "Building an oppressive authority over the heads of our people strongly contradicts with the principle of democracy you are calling for," an apparent reference to the Fatah-led security forces.

Also Thursday, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants marked his third anniversary in captivity in Gaza, with no news on his plight.

Sgt. Gilad Schalit, 22, was captured on June 25, 2006, by Hamas-affiliated militants who tunneled under the Gaza-Israel border and attacked a military post. Two other soldiers were killed.

Schalit has not been seen since and the Red Cross has not been allowed to visit him, though Hamas has released two recorded statements from him and exchanged letters between him and his family.

Hamas has demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners, including people convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis, in exchange for the soldier.

Israeli media reported again Thursday that the soldier would be transferred to Egypt soon as part of an exchange. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor noted there have been several rumors in recent days. "We will only know when he is released. Until then I can't comment," he said.

Egyptian-mediated attempts to arrange a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas have been unsuccessful. A Hamas spokesman, Osama Almuzeini, said Thursday that there were no new developments in the negotiations.

He refused to confirm whether the soldier was alive or dead, saying Hamas would not give any "information for free."

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