PLO, Israel Expand Powers of Palestinians in W. Bank
Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization stepped beyond their differences over security issues and agreed Thursday for the first time to expand Palestinian control over some government functions throughout the West Bank.
The accord is important for both sides because it comes when relations have been strained by the PLO’s failure to stop attacks on Israelis by Hamas, an Islamic militant group.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath announced after late-night talks that began Wednesday in Alexandria, Egypt, that Palestinians will take responsibility for education and cultural affairs in the West Bank before the month’s end.
They also said they would try to wrap up talks next week on turning over health care, tourism and taxation responsibilities to the Palestinians.
The hand-over of civil authority comes before the two sides have agreed on a redeployment of Israeli troops outside West Bank Palestinian population centers or a date and framework for Palestinian elections.
Shaath and Peres failed to issue an expected joint statement committing Israel and the PLO to fight against terrorism together.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly told a group of Israeli lawmakers that he believed the PLO’s recent arrest of Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip was little more than a publicity stunt. Rabin has expressed disappointment publicly with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s reluctance to crush Hamas.
The PLO rounded up about 40 Hamas activists after one Israeli was shot dead and six others were wounded in two drive-by shootings in Gaza last Sunday. But all those arrested have been released.
The Israeli army says there have been 39 incidents of Palestinians shooting at Israelis in Gaza since the PLO took over in May. Palestinian police have failed to arrest anyone in connection with any of the attacks.
But Shaath told reporters in Alexandria that the Palestinians are committed “to the maintenance of peace and doing everything possible to stop violence.” Peres welcomed Shaath’s statement as “a real commitment.”
And in Gaza, Col. Tawfik Jaber, head of Palestinian police intelligence in southern Gaza, a stronghold of Hamas, reportedly delivered a warning from Arafat to Hamas that they must not carry guns in public or wear masks.
Jaber “told us he was willing to sacrifice 100 of his men to implement the policy of the Palestinian Authority on the Gaza Strip,” Ahmad Nakhleh, a Hamas member who met with Jaber, told the Associated Press.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another militant Islamic group that rejects the PLO peace accord with Israel, have warned Arafat against stopping their attacks on Israelis. Arafat has handled the groups gingerly, fearful a get-tough policy could shatter support in Gaza for the still-shaky Palestinian government.
While Israel and the PLO differ on how to handle Hamas, they agreed in Alexandria to work to persuade the international community to deliver funds more quickly to the Palestinian Authority.
In their 11-point statement, issued at the talks’ close, the two sides agreed they would seek $40 million in immediate aid from donor countries, due to meet in Paris next month.
Those countries have been reluctant to give money to the Palestinian Authority for start-up costs, such as police salaries, and the Palestinians have dragged their feet on instituting a system of taxation or an accounting mechanism to ensure that donations are not misspent.
But Israeli and Palestinian officials have warned that the self-government experiment could collapse unless funds start flowing regularly to the Palestinians.
Israel also agreed to release by today 249 more prisoners; Jerusalem reportedly has offered to release several thousand remaining prisoners if the PLO grants a general amnesty to Palestinians in the territories suspected of having collaborated with the Israelis.
Israeli newspapers reported Thursday that members of the Fatah Hawks, an armed group loyal to Arafat, have killed 11 suspected collaborators in the Jericho area alone in the last two weeks. Rabin is said to be infuriated by the killings and has threatened to stop discussing the release of Palestinian prisoners unless the PLO protects suspected collaborators.
The PLO and Israel also agreed to invite 400 civilian international observers to maintain a temporary presence in the territories beginning in September. Their duties must still be negotiated.
Peres plans to travel to Gaza today, with Norwegian Foreign Minister Bjorn Tore Godal, to meet Arafat. The three plan to lunch together to celebrate the Aug. 20, 1993, signing of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO. That accord became the framework for the gradual hand-over of government authority to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by Israel.
Peres’ visit will be the first by a senior Israeli official to Gaza since the PLO took over civilian rule there three months ago.