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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February, 2005, 12:06 GMT
Israel returns militants' bodies
Members of Israel's forensic institute prepare to transport the body of a Palestinian into an ambulance in Tel Aviv
The bodies have been kept in the Tel Aviv forensics institute
The Israeli army is returning the bodies of 15 Palestinian militants for burial in Gaza, as a goodwill gesture amid efforts to end years of conflict.

Some of the 15 were killed in raids by Palestinian militants on Israeli army outposts in Gaza in the last two years.

It is not clear why Israel kept these particular bodies, as it often hands back remains immediately.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops have shot dead a Palestinian who the army said tried to stab a soldier.

The incident occurred near the Ibrahimi Mosque/Patriarchs Cave shrine in Hebron - a flashpoint city where several hundred Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli army protection among a large Palestinian population.

Israeli radio said the Palestinian armed with two knives approached an army patrol and tried to stab one of the soldiers. The soldier kicked him away and then shot him.

'New era'

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas has asserted increasing control over the Palestinian sphere
The developments came as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas declared the Middle East conflict effectively at an end, with Israel speaking a "different language" of peace.

"When the Israelis declare that they will comply with the agreement I made in Sharm al-Sheikh and our comrades in Hamas and Jihad said they are committed to the truce... I believe we will start a new era," he is quoted as saying.

The comments came in an interview with the New York Times, Mr Abbas's first with the international media since he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority last month.

He said securing the release of about 8,000 Palestinians detained by Israel was his priority, and was something that would test the ceasefire declared at a landmark summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh last Tuesday.

He ruled out any further interim agreements with Israel, saying only final status talks with political goals would satisfy Palestinian needs.

Confidence building

The remains of the 15 militants were driven from Israel's forensic institute in Tel Aviv to the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza to be handed to representatives of the Palestinian Authority.

They are expected to be taken to the Palestine Legislative Council office in Gaza, where the families can then take possession of them and prepare for funerals, Palestinian sources are quoted as saying.

Other recent confidence building moves have included:

  • Israeli approval a list of 500 Palestinian prisoners to be released in the coming days
  • Repatriation of 55 deported Palestinians, many of whom were exiled after the Bethlehem siege in 2002
  • Several hundred Palestinian workers from Gaza allowed to return to jobs in Israel after months of closure
  • An agreement to pull Israeli troops out of Jericho in the West Bank on Tuesday

Israeli soldiers rarely operate in Jericho, a quiet town in the Jordan valley, so the pullout is mainly of symbolic value, correspondents say.

But the transfer will be a test ahead of other pull-outs from Palestinian towns in the West Bank, with Qalqilya and Tulkarm expected to be next in line.

Senior Palestinian negotiator and Jericho resident Saeb Erekat said he would ask the Israelis to lift a ban on Israeli citizens entering Jericho.

The town depends mainly on tourism for its income, including a once-thriving casino - the only one in either Israel or the Palestinian territories - which closed in 2000 after the outbreak of the intifada.

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