Israel Cautious But Handover Goes On

JERUSALEM -- Israel's defense minister warned Wednesday that the handover of additional West Bank towns to Palestinian control would require greater effort by Palestinian police to disarm militants, but stopped short of halting the process.

Also on Wednesday, opponents of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip suffered a setback when a key religious figure stood by his refusal to support a national referendum on the pullout, despite intense pressure from hard-line legislators. Holding a referendum would delay and possibly scuttle the pullout, set for this summer.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, was to meet Wednesday with two U.S. envoys to the Middle East, Elliot Abrams and David Welch, to discuss Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, a diplomat said. The two envoys will ask Sharon about plans to expand the West Bank's largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim, by 3,500 more homes, in violation of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, U.S. State Department officials have said. The new neighborhood would drive a wedge between the West Bank and the eastern sector of Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians as a future capital. Palestinian officials have condemned the project, saying it threatens peace prospects.

The handover of five West Bank towns was agreed upon at a Feb. 8 Mideast summit. After delays and difficult negotiations, Israel handed the towns of Jericho and Tulkarem to Palestinian control in the past week. As part of the agreement, Palestinian fugitives in those towns were given limited amnesty by Israel.

Israeli security officials said Wednesday the Palestinian security forces had broken a promise to disarm the militants in the towns under their control. Fugitives have also fled to Tulkarem from other parts of the West Bank to take advantage of the promised immunity, the security officials said on condition of anonymity.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Wednesday that the handover of additional towns -- Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah -- was in jeopardy.

"The Palestinians' rate of progress on everything regarding arrests and their obligations is very slow to the point where nothing at all has been done," Mofaz told reporters at the central command. "This will make it difficult for us to hand over responsibility for the additional towns.

"Handing over responsibility is, after all, meant to give them the ability to prove their will to really fight terror, to take responsibility, to deal with wanted men, to stop people getting out [of the towns] to carry out attacks," he added.

Still, Mofaz said discussions on handing over Qalqiliya would start soon.