The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat welcomed anoffer from Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, to start implementing the Wye Agreement next month and to withdraw occupying forces from another slice of the West Bank from 1 October. The American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has postponed a planned mediating mission to give the two sides a chance to solve their differences alone.
Under the Wye accord, signed last autumn, Israel undertook to pull back from 13.2 per cent of the territory, but Benjamin Netanyahu's right- wing government froze the deal after ceding the first 2 per cent. While reiterating his commitment to honour Wye, Mr Barak tried to persuade Mr Arafat to revise the map and incorporate the final stage of withdrawal in a definitive peace agreement.
The Palestinians insisted, however, that Israel must implement Wye to the letter. On Friday, their spokesman said:"We will not begin to negotiate the final-status arrangement before the full implementation of the interim agreements."
After Mr Barak's more conciliatory statement in an interview with army radio yesterday, Mr Arafat told reporters in Gaza: "We welcome this. They had promised implementing in August, but if they say September, we agree to this." Mr Arafat warned the new Prime Minister that the Palestinians would be distressed if he did little more than set the clock ticking in September. He demanded speedy action on such issues as the release of Palestinian prisoners and the green light for a long-delayed sea port in Gaza.
As frustration grew last week, Palestinian authorities encouraged protesters to take to the streets and challenge Israeli troops, who responded with rubber-coated bullets.
On Saturday about 4,000 of Mr Arafat's Fatah activists demonstrated in Gaza. The Palestinian leader told them: "Step by step, stone by stone, we will rebuild the independent Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem."
Israeli intelligence officers believe the Palestinian leadership is signalling that the alternative to progress is confrontation. The young heirs of the intifada do not limit themselves to stones. Two Israeli settlers were shot and wounded in Hebron last Tuesday. Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, said it had carried out the attacks.
At midnight on Saturday, the Israeli army lifted both a curfew and a closure that had been imposed on the section of the West Bank town of Hebron under its control. The curfew had confined the 30,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled part of the town to their homes and prevented them from entering or leaving Hebron since Tuesday night.