Palestinians cheer latest withdrawal from West Bank

JERUSALEM — Israeli troops began withdrawing from another 6.1 percent of the West Bank on Tuesday, the same day that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began talks in Washington.

Palestinian residents in Beitunia, one of the towns handed over, celebrated the transfer, cheering and firing guns into the air.

"We no longer have to feel that we are going from one country to another when we travel from Ramallah to Beitunia," said Ghalib Bader, a Ramallah baker.

The withdrawal gives the Palestinian Authority full control of 18 percent of West Bank and partial control of another 21.7 percent.

The long-delayed withdrawal was originally scheduled to take place on Jan. 20, but was delayed after the Palestinians refused to sign the maps, demanding control of areas bordering Jerusalem.

On Sunday, Israel's cabinet approved the transfer with a 16-6 vote.

The cabinet decision took place amid repeated indications that the Palestinian Authority is cooperating with Israel to clamp down on terrorism.

Over the weekend, Palestinian security officials detained several Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip who were suspected of planning to carry out terror attacks against Israel.

In a separate action, Palestinian security forces uncovered about 70 pounds of explosives hidden in a kindergarten in a Gaza refugee camp.

One of two Hamas activists that Palestinian security forces detained last week near the West Bank town of Nablus led the forces to the explosives.

The two suspects are believed to have headed a Hamas terrorist cell that Israeli security forces uncovered earlier this month in the Israeli Arab town of Taibe near Tel Aviv.

The two suspects had been on the run since a March 2 shootout in Taibe, where Israeli soldiers killed four Hamas members and captured another.

Sunday's cabinet vote came after the security cabinet, a smaller group of ministers that focuses on security issues, approved last week the withdrawal map specifying the 6.1 percent land transfer.

The ministers who voted Sunday against the move included members of the pro-settler National Religious Party, the fervently religious Shas Party and the Russian immigrant Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Party.

Prior to the cabinet vote, Jewish settlers lined a highway near Jerusalem to protest the redeployment.

Under the withdrawal plan, 5.1 percent of the West Bank, now under Palestinian civilian control and Israeli security control, was handed over to full Palestinian control. An additional 1 percent went from full Israeli control to full Palestinian control.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said that 60 percent of the West Bank's Palestinian population now "will be under full Palestinian authority."

The withdrawal included three Arab villages near Jerusalem: Zatara, Beitunia and Ubeidiya.

It also included areas near the West Bank towns of Jericho, Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron, bringing the Palestinians one step closer to achieving the territorial contiguity they want in a future state.

Negotiations will now begin for the third West Bank redeployment, scheduled to take place in June.