Israel cedes power in West Bank as Palestinians struggle to govern

August 25, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel is slowly releasing its bureaucratic hold on the West Bank, turning over governmental powers to fledgling Palestinian ministries still struggling to get organized.

The new Palestinian education chief yesterday accepted the symbolic keys to the first 150 schools in the Ramallah area north of Jerusalem. He will take over administration of all 1,600 West Bank schools before school starts next week.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo, Egypt, also initialed an agreement yesterday to turn over responsibility for other services, including tourism, health care and social welfare in the West Bank to the Palestinians.

Nabil Shaath, chief Palestinian negotiator, told reporters in Cairo that "today is the beginning of the genuine takeoff."

The moves are part of the expansion of the Palestinian self-rule that began in Jericho and the Gaza Strip in May. They are to be followed by elections among the Palestinians, and "redeployment" of Israeli troops away from populated Arab areas in the West Bank.

Israel is eager to rid itself of the chores of providing government services to a hostile population. But it is less willing to pull its troops out.

"We are remaining in power in the field," Israel's chief negotiator, Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild, said in Cairo yesterday. "We are transferring functional authority to the Palestinians at this stage in five or six areas. It is possible that in the future . . . we will transfer additional powers. But we remain the authority in the field."

These steps were spelled out in the peace accord signed in Washington in September after the handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The deadlines for each step have long been bypassed, and each side has threatened to backtrack on some terms of the agreement. But both Israel and the Palestinians generally are pushing forward to change the face of the area occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

The Palestinians are pressing to assume responsibilities, even as they acknowledge that they are not yet ready to provide government services for the nearly 2 million Palestinians.

"From an administrative point of view, the Palestinian Authority lacks the institutions to run these sectors," concluded Samir Hazboun, director of Data, a Palestinian think tank in Bethlehem.

Mr. Arafat blames slow financial donations from other countries for the problems. His critics say that Mr. Arafat's jealous grip on power and his administrative shortcomings have made chaos of the new government's efforts.

The Palestinian approach is to sort out the difficulties as they go along, largely by themselves. They are loath to accept too much help from Israelis for fear of appearing to be Israeli pawns.

Mr. Shaath acknowledged yesterday that "there will have to be [cooperation]. I don't see it happening any other way. There will be close cooperation."

Before the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1987, Palestinian local officials provided much of these same government services under Israeli rule. At the start of the rebellion, most quit.

Those former workers and Palestinians already in some posts will ease -- in some areas -- the task of the Palestinian authority. In education, for example, virtually all of the 15,000 teachers are Palestinians -- only the top decisions in the education system were made by Israelis.

Still, the new Palestinian Education Ministry will take over an antiquated, poor system of schools.

A third of the "schools" are in homes. Some have dirt-floor classrooms and do not have pencils or paper, much less books. The average classroom is jammed with 45 students. Schools in the West Bank follow a different curriculum than those in Gaza.

"The Israelis are transferring to us their problems," said Mr. Hazboun.

The 25 hospitals and 487 clinics in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are similarly served by 2,300 Palestinian doctors, as well as Palestinian nurses and administrators. But they provide rudimentary care; sophisticated tests, most specialized care and many surgical procedures must be done in Israeli hospitals.

The new Palestinian health minister must set up from scratch a medical insurance system. Hospital administrators who badly need more money have been told to expect less.

The tax system could provide money for these services but presents particular problems. Tax collections under the Israelis were often arbitrary and used as a method of control. Many Palestinians refused to pay.

Given the desperate economy in the West Bank and Gaza, some Palestinians have assumed that their own government would not levy taxes.

Even if it does, the tax records kept by the Israelis are computerized -- in Hebrew. The Palestinians will have to devise an entirely new system and evaluate every property, or accept the despised Israeli records and record-keeping system.

"They refused in the beginning. I think they've changed their minds," said Rafi Gamzou, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.

Even tourism, which some Palestinians view with high expectations as a source of easy income, faces difficulties.

For example, there are no five-star hotels among the 44 Palestinian facilities, and few top-grade restaurants.

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