Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the Israeli army to put off a transfer of security control over Qalqilya, saying Palestinians had failed to fulfil a pledge to confiscate weapons from resistance groups in two towns relinquished earlier, political sources said on Sunday.

Palestinian officials disputed Israel's position that activists in Jericho and Tulkarim should be disarmed, saying agreements for the handover of these cities called only for armed men to register weapons and not carry them around.

Senior commanders of both sides had agreed that Israel would pull back forces from Qalqilya, near Tulkarim on the West Bank's boundary with central Israel, this week. But a defence ministry source said the transfer had been postponed.

A senior Israeli official added: "The handover [of Qalqilya] will be suspended until such time as they (the Palestinian Authority) perform. If they will perform, we will hand over."

Other delays

Israel had pulled back forces from Jericho and Tulkarim in the past two weeks after promising at the 8 February summit to transfer security responsibility for five West Bank cities. The two earlier handovers were delayed by rows over their scope.

The transfer process is seen as an important step towards reviving Middle East peace talks frozen by fighting since 2000.

Mofaz told the cabinet on Sunday that Israel would delay the move to pull back forces from Qalqilya because Palestinians had failed to seize guns from 52 activists wanted for suspected involvement in attacks on Israelis.

"Because of that we are not willing to give them Qalqilya. We are discussing the issue with them. For now we are not going to do that yet," a political source quoted Mofaz as saying.

He said that planning for the Qalqilya handover would continue. "We gave an order to plan the way Qalqilya will be transferred but not to transfer it yet," he said.

Palestinian criticism

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saib Uraiqat said Israel had not informed the Palestinian Authority of a delay and urged Israel to carry out its commitments.

"The Israeli government has no excuse to delay the handover of the cities," he said.

The senior Israeli official said the Palestinian Authority was required to disarm the activists.

"Despite the fact there has been a decrease in the number of terror attacks, no real steps have been taken in this period to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," he said.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas wants to co-opt resistance fighters into the mainstream rather than try to crush them, citing a fear of civil strife. He won a commitment from fighters this month to extend a tacit ceasefire until the end of the year.