JERICHO, West Bank - Israel restored security control over the town of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority yesterday, removing a checkpoint and easing travel into this sleepy desert oasis.
The handover, carried out after several delays, was the first step of what is supposed to be a phased return of five West Bank towns to Palestinian security control.
An agreement on the handovers was reached at the Middle East summit in Egypt last month, where the Palestinian and Israeli leaders declared a truce.
Israeli forces reoccupied West Bank cities in 2002 during a large-scale offensive after a series of suicide bombings in Israel, suspending security control by the Palestinian Authority.
The troops later pulled back to the outskirts of the towns but re-entered periodically on raids against militants.
Israeli forces rarely entered Jericho, which has been mostly quiet, so in practical terms the handover yesterday meant the removal of one of three Israeli checkpoints and the restoration of some Palestinian positions.
At the Israeli checkpoint on the western outskirts of town yesterday afternoon, soldiers took down a flag and camouflage netting in preparation for withdrawal.
Down the road, a squad of armed Palestinian police in motley uniforms arrived in two pickup trucks to set up their own checkpoint, hoisting flags, setting up a tent and unloading equipment.
"Our job here is to prevent entry by Israeli cars and any shooting by terrorists," said the officer in charge. "If we see any armed person, we will arrest him and seize his weapon."
At the main Israeli checkpoint at the southern entrance to Jericho, a crane removed concrete barriers to ease traffic. An army spokeswoman said Palestinian cars coming into town would no longer be stopped for inspection, though cars leaving would be checked.
A short drive away, a new checkpoint marked with crisp Palestinian flags straddled the main road, manned by officers wearing red berets and carrying assault rifles.
The northern exit of Jericho remained closed, blocked by concrete barriers placed by the Israelis.
Although the new arrangements fell short of Palestinian demands to remove all the Israeli roadblocks around Jericho, the Israelis agreed to consider moving the main checkpoint if quiet is maintained during a monthlong testing period.
The easing of movement into Jericho, a resort with archaeological and religious sites, could help boost tourism, which has largely stopped during the recent years of fighting.
"We are optimistic," said Jawdat Barakat, a reception supervisor at the largely empty Intercontinental Hotel on the southern edge of town. The adjacent Oasis Casino used to attract crowds of Israelis when peace efforts flourished in the mid-1990s, but the army now bars Israelis from entering Palestinian towns.
As part of the handover, the Palestinian Authority took responsibility for disarming and monitoring 17 Palestinian fugitives in Jericho who were on Israel's wanted list.
Further handovers of control are planned for next week in the towns of Tulkarm and Qalqilya, followed at a later date by Bethlehem and Ramallah.
The Israelis have not offered to hand back control of Nablus and Jenin, which have been hotbeds of militant activity, nor the Palestinian neighborhoods of Hebron, which are adjacent to enclaves of Jewish settlers.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.