Palestinians regain West Bank town

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The Independent Online
FIRING KALASHNIKOV sub-machine guns and pistols into the air, the blue-uniformed Palestinian police yesterday celebrated taking control of Qabatiya, the largest town on the West Bank that Israel has handed over in the first phase of the Israeli withdrawal under the Wye Agreement.

"It will be better to have our own people here," said Azmi Turkman, a fruit vendor, as he waited for the police convoy to arrive. "I have white hairs from trying to pass the Israeli checkpoint just outside town."

But others were less optimistic. "It will make no difference to the way we live," said Mahmud Manassa, a farmer who was sceptical about the arrival of the Palestinian Authority in his town. "This doesn't mean peace and we still can't travel very far. There wouldn't be so many people here if it wasn't Friday and a holiday."

Israel and the Palestinians yesterday started to implement the first phase of the agreement which President Clinton brokered at the Wye Plantation three weeks ago. Israel handed over responsibility for security and control of 7 per cent of the northern West Bankaround the agricultural town of Jenin.

Set in rolling hills and olive groves, Israel withdrew from the area in 1995. The Israelis and Palestinians will share control of a further 2 per cent of the West Bank.

At mid-morning yesterday a bulldozer with an escort of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police deposited two large concrete blocks, painted yellow and brown, to mark the new boundary of Jenin. The Palestinians have assumed full control within those borders.

Ahmed Abdel Rahman Obeidi, the owner of a stone-cutting factory now under Palestinian jurisdiction, viewed the blocks with obvious satisfaction. "I used to be afraid the Israelis would come and do something to my factory. Now I'm not afraid any more. I am going to invest $600,000 in my plant."

The implementation of the first phase of the Wye Agreement was delayed when Israel made last-minute changes to the maps showing the extent of the withdrawal. A helicopter then had to fly the documents to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, for final approval and signing.

But the final withdrawal of Israeli security forces did not exactly provoke scenes of exuberant enthusiasm in Qabatiya, a ramshackle country town of 16,000 people. It acquired a reputation for toughness during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

"We lost about 80 people dead," Mr Manassa said. "We were the first town to hang a Palestinian for collaborating with Israel during the intifada. He was called Mohammed Ayad and he was hanged from an electricity pole."

Mr Manassa linked the troubles in the town to the Israeli army base at nearby Bezeq Moshe. The base will remain, its firing range, with the distance to the target shown by large notices, covering part of a hilltop near the town. Captured artillery pieces and tanks are displayed as trophies around the parade ground.

Yet friendly curiosity, rather than excitement, seemed to be the pervading emotion of people who turned out to greet the Palestinian police, accompanied by fusillades of rifle fire. The crowd ducked when one volley of shots went rather too close for comfort over their heads.

The Palestinian police, who apart from their uniforms are soldiers to all intents and purposes, have begun establishing a police station opposite Qabatiya town hall.

Israel also released 250 Palestinian prisoners yesterday, including hard-core criminals. One prisoner, Jamal El Rub, was expected to return home to Qabatiya.

The caution of the 1.5 million Palestinians living on the West Bank about what they are gaining from the Wye Agreement is explained by the construction activity visible at Jewish settlements along the road between Jerusalem and Jenin.

In Pesagot, just north of Jerusalem, settlers said they had no difficulty in selling new houses at $110,000 (pounds 66,000) each.

And at Ofra, near the Palestinian enclave of Ramallah, the bypass road for Israeli settlers was being resurfaced and the red roofs of the settlements' new houses crowned a nearby hilltop.