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Last Updated: Friday, 15 August, 2003, 19:25 GMT 20:25 UK
Israel agrees handover of cities
Two Israeli soldiers stand guard at the Surda junction, the northern entrance to the West Bank town of Ramallah
Control of Ramallah will be handed over if conditions are met
Israel has agreed to hand control of four West Bank cities back to the Palestinians, according to Palestinian officials.

Israel has also agreed to permit Yasser Arafat to travel to the Gaza Strip to visit the grave of his sister Yousra, who died earlier this week and was buried in Gaza City, Israel TV reported.

It would be the first time Mr Arafat has left his besieged compound in Ramallah in more than a year and a half.

Correspondents say a troop withdrawal and the removal of checkpoints might boost Palestinian popular support for the roadmap peace plan, at a time when it appears in serious trouble.

The agreement to pull out from the cities - Ramallah, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Jericho - was reportedly reached in a meeting on Friday between Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Security Chief Mohammad Dahlan.

"We have agreed on Israeli withdrawal from four Palestinian cities in the West Bank in the coming two weeks," Mr Dahlan said, quoted by AFP news agency.

He described his meeting with Mr Mofaz as "very constructive".

Conditions

Israeli officials have confirmed that the four cities would be handed over within two weeks, starting next week with Jericho and Qalqiliya.

MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after he was informed of the death of his sister Yousra Abdel Raouf Al Kidwah

The other two cities are to be handed over in the following week providing certain conditions are met, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence Shirli Eden said.

They include: "No terrorist attacks, the Palestinians begin to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and the Palestinians create an apparatus for dealing with wanted people," she said.

In return, Israel would reduce the number of checkpoints in the West Bank and provide additional permits for Palestinian workers in Israel, she added.

Mr Dahlan insisted the Palestinians would not use force against Hamas, Islamic Jihad or fighters from the mainstream Fatah movement of which he is a member.

Prisoners freed

On Friday, Israel freed 73 Palestinian prisoners in what it described a gesture to the roadmap after a three-day delay caused by the two suicide bombings that killed two Israelis.

The fate of the Palestinian political detainees who number more than 5,000 is a major source of tension between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian officials said the 73 had been jailed for petty crimes like theft, rather than militant activity.

They were due to be freed soon anyway and Israeli troops arrested more suspected militants in overnight raids, they added.


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