Israel, Palestinians ready to move toward their first transfer of power

April 30, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- After 27 years of Israeli rule, Palestinians finally will take control of a piece of their homeland next week.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been wrangling for so long, the residents of this torn land seem surprised that real change will begin.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, are to meet in Cairo, Egypt, on Tuesday to settle the last issues on Israeli turnover to the Palestinians of Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

Their representatives in Paris finished a blueprint yesterday for economic relations between Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas. Among other things, it transfers the right to collect taxes from the Israelis to the Palestinians.

That will be only the first of several eye-opening changes:

* Within 24 hours after Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat sign off on the details, 1,000 Palestinian police are expected to arrive from Egypt and Jordan. The first of a force of 8,000, many of these are Palestinian soldiers who have not been here since 1967.

* Within days, Israeli troops will pull completely out of Jericho and retreat to Jewish settlements within the Gaza Strip. Israeli civil authorities there will relinquish such duties as running hospitals, schools and fixing roads.

* Israel will crack open the gates of its prisons, releasing 5,000 of the 8,500 Palestinians being held, with the promise that most of the rest will be freed soon.

* Hundreds of Palestinians exiled through the years for opposing Israeli occupation will join the 90 already returned.

"What we are doing is the first step toward [our] salvation," Nabil Shaath, the chief Palestinian negotiator, proclaimed in Cairo this week.

As ever, the negotiations could hit another snag. Before the agreement is signed Wednesday, Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat are supposed to set the final size of the autonomous area of Jericho and determine if a Palestinian officer will be posted at Arab-country borders.

Mr. Rabin cautioned yesterday that the signing depends on settling those issues.

But the invitations are going to dignitaries to come to Cairo for the ceremony. It appears all is set to start the process of dismantling the occupation that has ensnared and bedeviled Israel since Jewish troops swept into Arab-held lands during the 1967 Six Day War.

"It's clear Israel and the Palestinians will be embarking on a new venture together," said U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, in Jerusalem yesterday as part of his Mideast tour. "This will transform their relations from conflict into peaceful coexistence."

As Palestinian autonomy begins in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, Israel is supposed to begin preparations for withdrawing its troops from Arab centers of population in the rest of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem.

The relaxation of Israeli rule will be far from total. Israel will retain a tight grip around the Palestinian areas. The new Israeli checkpoint at Jericho is barely a quarter-mile outside the town; in the Gaza Strip, troops still will patrol major roads and Jewish settlements; the coming and going of Palestinians still will be subject to a system of colored passes, Israeli soldiers and searches.

But the changes will be sweeping enough that both sides are holding their breath to see how it all will work. Long gone is the euphoria that greeted the initial Israeli-PLO accord last September, when it seemed problems could be swept away in a flood of goodwill.

Now both sides face a grim reckoning. The Palestinians must prove they can run their own affairs and must overcome widespread disillusionment among their people who think the deal with Israel offers too little, too late.

Already there are troubling signs. Although elections for a Palestinian council are scheduled for October -- three months behind schedule -- the PLO shows little commitment to establishing true democracy. If things go sour, the Islamic groups are waiting in the wings to offer a religious alternative.

The Israeli government, too, must prove the value of this agreement to a strident and growing opposition. Mr. Rabin needs substantial progress and a subsidence of Palestinian attacks before election season begins next year.

Both sides hope the sagging support for the peace process will rebound as residents see positive change.

"I know that thousands of mothers and thousands of army reservists will breathe sighs of relief the moment we leave Gaza," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said to reporters in Cairo after the lengthy negotiations.

"Goodbye to Gaza, and peace for Israel," he said. "We are lifting a great weight off the back of Israel."

Under the economic agreement reached yesterday in Paris, both Palestinians and Israelis will have similar import rules, almost-identical value added tax, and free movement of goods and most produce. Israel still will use Palestinian labor, a chief source of income to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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