Israel completes handing over West Bank town

Tulkarm ,West Bank, March 22 | Updated: Mar 23 2005, 05:30am hrs
Israel completed its handover of the town of Tulkarm to Palestinian control on Tuesday, opening a gate and allowing traffic to flow freely to the rest of the West Bank for the first time in three years.

The transfer of Tulkarm, days after Palestinians regained the West Bank town of Jericho, was an Israeli gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who won a deal with militants last week to extend a de facto truce. Israeli and Palestinian commanders shook hands at the metal gate before it was opened to Palestinian vehicles. It was erected shortly after a Palestinian uprising began in September 2000 and had been manned by Israeli troops.

The low-key ceremony ended the handover of security control of Tulkarm, a city of 50,000 people near the Israeli border, which began on Monday night.

Israel had promised on the eve of a February 8 peace summit to transfer security responsibility for five West Bank cities, but the handovers were delayed by disputes over security and a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub last month.

Israeli officials said they would transfer the West Bank city of Qalqilya, south of Tulkarm, to Palestinian security control next week.

The Tulkarm transfer was delayed by hours due to a dispute over Israel's insistence on retaining control over three outlying villages, including one from where a suicide bomber set out last month to carry out an attack that killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv.

The handover began on Monday night when Palestinian police took up positions in the city and set up checkpoints as gunmen fired into the air and drivers honked car horns in celebration.