Palestinians see fruits of truce
Crowds turned out to greet the return of militants' bodies.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Crowds of Palestinians greeted a convoy of ambulances bringing home the bodies of 15 militants killed in clashes with Israelis -- a gesture understood by Gazans as the first concrete benefit of a new truce.
But while Gazans were celebrating this boost for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to prevent militants from sabotaging the cease-fire, Israeli troops in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron shot and killed a Palestinian they said tried to stab a soldier.
The last time a Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces, last Thursday, the militant group Hamas fired dozens of mortars and rockets on Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, endangering the truce declared Feb. 8. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group have since pledged to halt attacks against Israel, but have stopped short of accepting the truce announced by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Also, last-minute disagreements are holding up the handover of Jericho to Palestinian control.
Latest overture welcomed
In Gaza City, tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets as the ambulances carrying the remains of the militants rolled into Gaza City's main square, escorted by Palestinian security. Dozens of armed men stood in the square raising the banners of their factions and saluting the bodies.
A sign bearing the name of the dead man inside was affixed to the windshield of each ambulance, and the Palestinian police band played the Palestinian national anthem as the convoy proceeded.
The militants were killed in attacks on Israeli army outposts in Gaza and other Israeli targets over the past two years. It was not clear why Israel kept the remains.
This latest overture is to be followed in the next few days with an Israeli release of 500 Palestinian prisoners and the handover of Jericho, the first of five West Bank towns that Israel has promised to restore to Palestinian control. However, Palestinians said disagreements over removal of roadblocks is delaying the transfer, tentatively set for Tuesday or Wednesday.
Israel put off the handover after meetings on Monday failed to resolve issues like the size of the territory to be transferred and the placement of Israeli roadblocks, the Haaretz daily reported.
Abbas told The New York Times in an interview published Monday that "prisoners are our priority, and we told everyone about it." A generous release of prisoners would help to stabilize the volatile situation, he said, noting that the truce and Sharon's new approach meant the war with Israel was over.
Sharon seeks support
Sharon plans a unilateral removal of all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank this summer. He said he would ask the Cabinet Sunday to hold a procedural vote approving the pullout, which the Cabinet authorized in principle several months ago.
The procedural vote is necessary because the Justice Ministry has said Jewish settlers must be given five months' notice. The Cabinet will be asked to vote later on each of the withdrawal's four phases. Sharon told members of his Likud Party on Monday that Israel's dialogue with the Palestinians includes the pullout. "If we are fired upon during the withdrawal from Gaza, the response will be harsh," he said.
Jewish settler leaders are making a last-ditch effort to persuade Sharon to hold a referendum on the pullout, but Sharon has rejected their demands.
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