Israel and PLO will not meet Gaza deadline

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CAIRO - Negotiators from Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) spent hours discussing court procedures and military jurisdiction in an 'autonomous' Gaza and Jericho at peace talks in Cairo yesterday, writes Robert Fisk. The PLO privately complained that weeks of work lay ahead before the withdrawal agreement could be signed, while the Israelis accused the Palestinians of talking too much to journalists. Both sides now acknowledge there is no hope that the original deadline for the agreement - which falls on Wednesday - will be met.

Both sides accept that a Palestinian police force with a minumum strength of 6,500 men - equipped with Kalashnikov rifles and 100 machine-guns, along with armoured vehicles, jeeps and military trucks - will start its deployment in Gaza and Jericho a week before the signing ceremony. But they have still not agreed on the size of the PLO's area of control in Jericho nor the rules under which Palestinians may travel between Jericho and Gaza on four agreed 'safe passage' roads. The Israelis still insist that no Arab may travel between the two cities without their approval.

The PLO and the Israelis also remain far apart over the specific jurisdiction which each side will have over the other's citizens after the Israeli army redeploys in Gaza and Jericho. 'The Israelis say they must have personal jurisdiction over all Jewish settlers, wherever they are,' a PLO source said yesterday. 'We say that anybody - Israeli or Palestinian - who is in our territory comes under our control. The jurisdiction must be ours.' The PLO's legal committee, led by Dr Nabil Shaath, the chief Palestinian negotiator, repeatedly raised this issue with the Israelis yesterday, pointing out that if an armed Jewish settler threatened Palestinians in the PLO's zone of Gaza, it would fall to the PLO to arrest him.

Yet still there is no agreement about a system of courts in the newly 'autonomous' areas which will be run by the PLO. The nearest the two sides have come to creating a judicial authority - as revealed in the Independent on Sunday yesterday - is a Joint Security Committee (JSC) which will comprise between five and seven officers each from the Israelis and the PLO, with offices in Khan Younis, Gaza and Jericho, to deal with violent incidents. The PLO's security forces will be divided into four branches: police units to administer Palestinian territories, 'public security' units to investigate crime, civil defence to run the fire services and other utilities, and a mukhabarat (intelligence) service. One intelligence officer from each side will meet at the JSC's weekly meetings for what the PLO calls 'non-friction co-ordination' - to prevent PLO and Israeli forces accidentally shooting at each other.

The PLO is putting a brave face on the continued presence of settlers during the 'interim phase' of autonomy, complaining that 80 per cent of the time has been spent negotiating the security of the settlers but pointing out that 800,000 Palestinians - 1967 exiles and their children - will have the right to apply for permission to return to Gaza or Jericho from a joint Egyptian-Jordanian-Israeli-PLO committee. At the first official meeting between the PLO and a joint US State and Defense Department delegation in Cairo last week, the US administration agreed to furnish the PLO's embryo police force with military trucks and jeeps as well as communications equipment. The Palestinians have agreed to mount joint patrols and use 'joint mobile units' on three new roads in Gaza which will be used by settlers wishing to travel to and from Israel.

JERUSALEM - A Palestinian guard who witnessed the massacre at a mosque in Hebron yesterday testified he saw only one gunman, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, shoot at Muslim worshippers, Reuter reports. 'He was shooting alone, there was nobody else with him,' Ismail Hashlamon said of Goldstein's murder of some 30 Palestinians in February. His testimony, before the Israeli inquiry into the killings, contradicted statements by other Arab witnesses suggesting that Mr Goldstein may have had an accomplice.

(Photograph omitted)