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Israel hands over Jericho
Israeli troops handed Jericho over to Palestinian security control today amid signs that an informal truce is starting to pay off. The Israeli flag was lowered from the West Bank town and roadblocks were dismantled.
The hand over forms part of a ceasefire package agreed last month by the recently elected Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. The initial implementation of the deal was delayed by a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on February 25, which left five Israelis dead.
Israeli and Palestinian security commanders met repeatedly throughout today to co-ordinate the hand over. There were chaotic scenes this afternoon as officials struggled to reach a decision about whether the change-over should be marked by a handshake or a signature.
The Palestinians insisted on a signature prompting the Israelis to demand time to show the document to a legal adviser. More than an hour later, officers from both sides returned for the signing ceremony at a liaison office on the outskirts of the town.
As part of the pullback in Jericho, Israeli troops removed one roadblock, while two other barriers are to remain in place for a month, to test the effectiveness of the Palestinian security forces' policing. The Palestinians had insisted all checkpoints were removed, but accepted the compromise.
Jericho is the first of five West Bank towns to be handed back to the Palestinians in an attempt to stem the violence that has persisted since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000. Israel erected dozens of barriers across the West Bank to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen from reaching Israeli targets. Despite the blockade, hundreds of Israelis have been killed in attacks by militants in the past five years. The others towns included in the pullout deal include Bethlehem, Ramallah, Tulkarem and Qalqiliya.
Today Palestinians were sceptical, but hopeful. Issa Saasine, a plastics trader visiting Jericho from Hebron, said: "A prisoner living in a cell will always be very glad when the guards open a window.
"Any small improvement is welcome, but more is needed to bring about confidence and stability."
Jericho, a farming and resort town in the Jordan valley, has largely stayed out of the fighting, and Israeli troops rarely entered the region in search of fugitives.
"The point is we are trying to get things back ... gradually, hoping that through peace and negotiations things will change," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
As part of the hand over, Israel is easing checks at the main roadblock at the southern entrance to Jericho, allowing some traffic through the area without inspection. In the past, long queues often formed in both directions. The move is likely to help the local economy, which depends on tourism.