Dismantling a legal leviathan: Negotiations start today on scrapping Israel's controls on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza

'LET there be occupation', said Military Proclamation No 1, authorised by Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's chief of staff, on 7 June 1967. The proclamation declared: 'Israeli military forces have occupied the West Bank and have taken over control in the interests of security and public order.'

The same day, seven further Israeli military proclamations and orders were signed, including an 'order concerning looting'; an order endowing the Israeli area commander with 'all legislative, executive and judicial powers'; an order placing the West Bank under 'quarantine', banning the removal of plants or animals from the area; and an order creating military courts. Similar orders were passed for the Gaza Strip.

By the end of the first day of the occupation, the legal foundations of Israeli rule had been laid down.

Since 7 June 1967 up to 1,400 military orders have been issued, restricting every aspect of Palestinian life, from banning the picking of wild thyme (to protect an Israeli monopoly over the herb's production) to controlling the contents of school textbooks and holding a bank account.

Today, in negotiations in Taba, the Egyptian Red Sea resort, and in Cairo, the first steps will be taken to dismantle this legal leviathan. Mr Rabin, now Prime Minister, has issued a new 'commandment': the Israeli-Palestinian accord, signed on 13 September, giving Palestinians control over their own lives.

On Monday night, Yasser Arafat won approval for his peace accord from the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation by 63 votes to eight, with 11 votes not cast. Mr Arafat was also appointed head of the National Authority to run the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In Tunis, multilateral talks began yesterday on the plight of millions of Middle East refugees. Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin, said that it would raise from about 1,000 to 5,000 the number of exiled Palestinians who may return to the occupied territories each year.

According to the Israeli-Palestinian accord, by 13 December military withdrawal must begin in the Gaza Strip and in Jericho on the West Bank and must be completed by 13 April. At a slower pace, powers will be transferred to Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank before Palestinian elections in July throughout the occupied territories.

Israel's readiness to hand over real authority to the new Palestinian council and to concede a degree of sovereignty will be tested in its readiness to rescind military laws, says Raja Shehadeh, a leading Palestinian legal authority. As yet it is unclear how far Israel is ready to allow the Palestinians to revoke military orders and pass their own laws, he says. Israel issued most of the military orders on the grounds of 'security' and may argue the need to maintain some, claiming continued security reasons. Furthermore, the outline accord makes no provision for military orders to be annulled retrospectively. Israel has seized 60 per cent of West Bank land by military order since 1967. 'I see no legal means which will enable us to win back that land,' says Mr Shehadeh.

He describes the legal status of Palestinians under military rule as that of 'permanent alien residents' with no rights of citizenship. Israeli military orders built on, or superseded, existing legal systems. In the West Bank the law was largely Jordanian, as the area was under Jordanian control before 1967; in the Gaza Strip, where Egypt had control, the law was Egyptian. Remnants of British Mandate and Ottoman law also survive.

The first military order the Palestinians will seek to revoke is 947, which gives the Israeli military governor power to implement all other military orders, in such areas as the economy, taxes, commerce, electricity, post, land seizures, security and free speech.

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives voted to suspend laws restricting the activities of the PLO in the US, Reuter reports. The measure now goes back to the Senate for final action to send it to President Bill Clinton.

(Photograph omitted)

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