Despite clashes, Israel continues to redeploy

JERUSALEM — Israel is continuing its redeployment from West Bank population centers despite violence clouding the process.

Israel initially froze its redeployment Friday of last week after several clashes prompted Israeli leaders to question whether the withdrawals were moving too fast.

"Why have we adopted a gradual process?"said Health Minister Ephraim Sneh. "So we will have the ability to stop if we are not satisfied" with Palestinian security.

"It is possible that we will have to delay redeployment,"Sneh added after the Friday incident.

In the lastest tensions, gunmen fired at a passing Israeli army vehicle north of Nablus Tuesday, wounding two soldiers.

One lightly wounded officer drove back to his base, while a badly wounded soldier was evacuated by helicopter.

Two border police were kidnapped Nov. 29 in Jenin by members of the Black Panthers, a local Palestinian vigilante group.

They were released after Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat reportedly joined in negotiations to end the kidnapping peacefully.

A Palestinian court in the West Bank Jericho enclave sentenced two of the kidnappers to nine years in jail at hard labor.

The kidnapping was triggered by another incident the same day in the town of Kabatiya, located near Jenin, where Israeli security forces sought to arrest Samir Zakarneh, a Palestinian terrorist on Israel's wanted list.

Zakarneh, who was later taken into custody by Palestinian officials, was sentenced to five years in jail. He was convicted on charges of leaving Jericho, where he was confined after an earlier conviction.

In another incident in the Jenin area, two Israeli soldiers were wounded Nov. 30 when gunmen opened fire on an army jeep that was escorting an Israeli bus near the Jewish settlement of Shaked.

That same day in Nablus, 18 Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli troops.

These incidents prompted Israeli leaders to warn Friday of last week that they would slow the troop withdrawals unless Palestinian officials did more to protect Israelis.

But on Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials met and agreed to continue the redeployment as planned.

Israel completed its withdrawal from the West Bank town of Jenin in mid-November. It has committed itself to withdraw from five other Palestinian population centers — Tulkarm, Kalkilya, Nablus, Bethlehem and Ramallah — before the end of this month.

In Bethlehem, where the redeployment is scheduled to be completed — and celebrated — by Christmas, hundreds of local residents welcomed an advance group of 12 Palestinian officers as they arrived at the district coordinating office in nearby Beit Jalla.

Work on the Bethlehem bypass road resumed at full speed in a push to complete its construction before Christmas.

The road is part of a network of bypass roads that will be used by Jewish settlers and Israeli security forces after Israeli troops withdraw from the West Bank population centers.

Environmental groups, which said the road would damage a national park, met with Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid to resolve the dispute.

"This is not an ideal solution, but it is the only solution I know which might improve the security situation of the Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank," Sarid said Sunday.

Ben-Eliezer was optimistic the Bethlehem road would be finished in two weeks. But he acknowledged some problems could arise with the Halhoul road, south of the West Bank town of Hebron, on which Israeli troops are scheduled to redeploy in March.

Building the Halhoul road involves the expropriation of Palestinian agricultural land, prompting Palestinians to clash Sunday with Israeli troops at the site.

In an unlikely alliance, Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba and Hebron took up the Palestinians' cause. The settlers said Palestinian anger could ultimately backfire against the settlers.

A delegation of settlers met Sunday with Deputy Foreign Minister Eli Dayan, who promised to convey their concerns to the appropriate authorities.