Mass protest against Israeli withdrawal plans


Israel is likely to pull back its troops from several West Bank cities within days, Defence Minister Mr Shaul Mofaz said today, in a further sign of cooperation with a new Palestinian leadership.

"I think there is an opportunity to create a new reality," Mr Mofaz told Israel Radio after talks late yesterday with Palestinian official Mr Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief, on confidence-building steps.

Palestinian sources said Israel agreed to a handover this week of five West Bank cities, where militants wanted by Israel would be kept in check by the Palestinian Authority. Violence has dropped significantly since Palestinian President Mr Mahmoud Abbas deployed security forces across the Gaza Strip earlier this month to prevent attacks on Israelis before a planned Israeli pullout from the occupied territory this summer.

Tens of thousands of people, mainly settlers, gathered in front of Israel's parliament building in Jerusalem to protest Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank. It was one of the largest rallies against the pullout since the Israeli leader unveiled his plan last year. Settler leaders urged Mr Sharon to hold a national referendum on the proposal, which Israel's cabinet approved in October.

Officials said Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon would meet around February 8th to explore ways to revive a peace "road map" charting mutual steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. The talks will coincide with a visit to the region by new US Secretary of State Ms Condoleezza Rice. She has pledged intensive personal involvement to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace after Yasser Arafat's death.

Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon last met in 2003, signing the "road map". Mr Abbas served as Arafat's prime minister at the time.