The first withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank under terms of a new U.S.-brokered peace agreement began today despite a political backlash within the Israeli government and a simmering dispute over Palestinian prisoners.
It is the first time in 22 acrimonious months that Israel has relinquished land captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War to Palestinian control, and it is a move that may cost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his government.
Shortly after daybreak, Israeli soldiers set up concrete brown-and-yellow markers designating new Palestinian territory, an army spokeswoman said. Palestinian police were to go on patrol later today.
The transfer of the 9% of West Bank land--an oddly shaped patch of nearly 200 square miles--to full or partial Palestinian rule is a principal requirement facing Israel under the land-for-security agreement signed at the White House last month.
Despite many reservations, Israel on Thursday agreed to move ahead with the pullback after Palestinian authorities issued a new law against incitement and ordered the confiscation of illegal weapons, part of their pledged fight against terrorism.
The Palestinians also submitted a list to Israeli security agencies of 10 accused terrorists wanted by Israel whom the Palestinians said they have arrested. The arrests were confirmed by the CIA, which is monitoring compliance of the agreement, an Israeli official said.
The Israeli Cabinet, at the end of a meeting described as bitter, ordered the withdrawal, although more ministers abstained and voted against it than voted for it.
Netanyahu came to power in June 1996 opposed to peace deals that relinquished land to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. His decision now to negotiate a hand-over of territory, running counter to the basic philosophy of the Israeli right wing, has cost him the support of much of his Cabinet and the political coalition led by his conservative Likud Party.
In Thursday’s Cabinet vote, even Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, who formed part of Netanyahu’s negotiating team at the Wye Plantation talks and who helped draft the agreement, abstained in a dispute over Palestinian compliance.
At least one Cabinet minister and erstwhile Netanyahu ally, Rafael Eitan, threatened to resign. Clamor is growing for the formation of a government of national unity, or for new elections, to replace Netanyahu’s regime. Support from opposition parties was needed to approve the agreement in the Israeli parliament earlier this week.
The political turmoil leaves Netanyahu weakened and complicates his ability to carry out the peace accord, analysts said, even though it enjoys wide public support.
Today’s withdrawal, the first of three stages, will transfer 2% of the West Bank, mostly barren, unpopulated land, to joint Palestinian-Israeli control, while an additional 7.1% that includes 23 towns and villages will go to full Palestinian rule. The area includes no Israeli army bases or Jewish settlements.
A dispute over the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, however, remained unresolved. Israel said more than half of the inmates released will be common criminals, but the Palestinians demanded that “political prisoners” form the bulk of those freed.
Hisham Abdel Razek, the Palestinian prisoner affairs minister, said he will refuse to accept common criminals. “We did not sign the Wye agreement to get car thieves,” he said.
Israel had agreed to free 250 prisoners, out of an eventual 750, but said it will not release prisoners implicated in the slayings of Israelis or those who are members of radical Islamic groups. Israeli officials said Thursday that they could not find more than 146 inmates to meet that criteria, having already released thousands in the five years since the landmark Oslo accords, which set in motion the Middle East peace process, were signed.
Today’s pullback will leave two small Jewish settlements, Ganim and Kadim, bordered by Palestinian-controlled territory on three sides. On Thursday, alarmed residents of the two communities demanded, and received, an audience with Netanyahu, who promised to protect them.
The settlers complained that the Israeli army had not begun to build additional fences and other fortifications that have been promised to protect them after the troops leave.
The government has set aside about $45 million to reinforce 18 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including Ganim and Kadim, that will be closer to Palestinian-controlled areas once the three-phase pullback is done. Reinforcements reportedly include electrified fences and concrete trenches.
“It is frightening that a band of wise people who are ministers of the government lets one man whose name is Arafat constantly mock it, only to get territories without truly fulfilling his commitments,” said the settlers’ umbrella organization, the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.