Christopher counsels Mid-East caution: Uncertainty over chances of meeting Rabin-Arafat peace accord deadline

THE United States Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, had warned against high expectations of his Middle East shuttle. And apparently with reason. Yesterday he suggested he had achieved no breakthrough to avoid a delay in Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho area, set for 13 December.

After talks in Amman with King Hussein of Jordan and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, he said that 'the difficulties . . . in the last several days in the occupied territories are a reminder of the need to move with determination. It is a complex process of balancing the need to move rapidly with the need to move carefully'.

The violence which has flared in the countdown to the withdrawal claimed more victims yesterday. Gunmen shot dead two Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli security sources said.

Elsewhere, Israeli undercover troops shot dead a member of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in front of his home in the West Bank village of Arura, Palestinian sources said.

Mr Christopher's call for moving carefully echoed the views of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. He had said it was preferable to reach a workable, clearcut agreement from the outset, even if this meant delaying by a week or two the implementation of the agreement. This was better than rushing into meeting the deadline and setting off at half cock.

A few nerves are understandable, in the final week before Israel is due to withdraw. After 26 years of Israeli occupation most Palestinians and many Israelis have never known any other rule. Some of the initial euphoria for the Israel-PLO accord has evaporated.

Mr Arafat has staked his personal credibility on implementing the withdrawal in time. Failure to secure it would provide ammunition for Palestinian opponents of the accord who say he is being duped. Palestinians accuse the Israelis of being niggardly in the negotiations when they are thrashing out the details.

The Palestinians miss the point. The Israelis want to withdraw. They want to divest themselves of the territories. Mr Rabin does not see why Israelis should run the affairs of Gaza City, with a population of a quarter of a million, but not a single Israeli resident.

Only a minority of Israelis are ideologically committed to holding on to what they call Judea and Samaria, and the rest of the world knows as the West Bank. Israel wants not territory, but security.

Yet Israel feels it is making the concessions. It is giving up territory. Once Israel made the historic gesture to deal with the PLO, and to pull out of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it wanted to ensure that the details be thoroughly worked out.

There are concerns about how prepared the Palestinians are to take over the running of the administration. The main issue is security. For without the PLO ensuring security against depredations by militants, none of the other operations of government administration, of levying taxes and paying schoolteachers, will be feasible.

There are differences to be bridged: over Jewish settlements and their security, over who controls the bridges and borders, and over Palestinian security prisoners. But Israel has accepted the principle that one day there will be a Palestinian state. It is working back from there, with one overriding concern in mind: that Israel's security not be compromised.

Despite the difficulties and the extremists' attempts to subvert the process through violence, both Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin have committed themselves so far to peace that neither can afford failure. There are problems, but these are the birth pangs, not the death throes, of the new Palestinian entity.

JERUSALEM - An Israeli court awarded pounds 300,000 to a Palestinian who was blinded and disabled when he was mistakenly shot by Israeli soldiers in 1988, AP reports. Ashraf Mahmoud Ibrahim, then aged 13, was shot in the head while a bystander during a clash in the Nur Shams refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.

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