The staggered withdrawal, slated to begin early Tuesday according to Israel Radio, would start with the cities of Qalqilya and Tulkarm. The Israeli army occupied the two towns a week ago as part of the military campaign to root out groups responsible for a series of deadly suicide bombings in Israel.
Fighting had been intense, particularly in Tulkarm and a nearby refugee camp, as Israeli forces conducted house-to-house searches for suspected militants.
The announced pullout comes hours after the U.S. demanded that Israel begin an immediate withdrawal. American envoy Anthony Zinni met late Monday with Sharon and told the Israeli leader the U.S. was serious in its call for a withdrawal from Palestinian areas.
According to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, Zinni delivered “the message that the president meant it — [the Israelis] need to begin to withdraw now… he means what he said and he expects Israel to act.”
Sharon had earlier said the Israeli military was moving quickly but would not withdraw until their mission was complete.
“These missions have not yet been completed and the army will continue to operate as fast as possible until the mission is completed, until they dismantle the terrorist infrastructure of [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat,” Sharon told the Knesset.
Also during his address, Sharon told Israelis his government was ready to discuss political peace with “moderate” Arab neighbors.
Just before the Israeli military moved into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, the Arab League had approved the idea of normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from areas occupied after the 1967 war. In response to Sharon’s comments, Arab diplomats said the ongoing incursion meant that talks would be impossible.
“We cannot negotiate while his troops are still in Ramallah surrounding the chairman or occupying the whole Palestinian zone,” one Arab official in the region told Reuters.
“There is no chance in hell,” Arab League chief Amr Moussa was quoted as saying by Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency.
Large protests continued Monday throughout the Arab world. In Sudan, hundreds of thousands gathered in the capital, Khartoum, to condemn Israel and the U.S. for the latest violence. Smaller demonstrations erupted in Amman, Jordan and Cairo, Egypt.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein said his nation would suspend oil shipments for a month to protest the Israel actions. None of the other major regional oil producers had any comment on the Iraqi move.
The U.S. has also called on Arab leaders and Arafat to do more to stop attacks on Israelis and other terrorist activities.
“We need more responsible statements coming out of Arab capitals,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday before embarking on a mission to the region. “We need Arab leaders to act responsibly in this time of crisis.”