Israel quits Gaza occupation bastions

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The Independent Online
AS THE Israeli redeployment in the Gaza Strip accelerated yesterday, violence broke out in the streets of Hebron, where Palestinian medical sources said Jewish settlers shot and wounded at least nine Palestinians.

The Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), the international monitors posted to Hebron, said one Palestinian was killed. But local hospitals could not confirm this. It appears that the clashes pitted settlers living in the centre of the city against Palestinian teenagers.

Amid optimism over the Gaza-Jericho agreement, the Hebron violence brings the problems of the West Bank town into the spotlight. Nearly three months after the Hebron massacre, when Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, 400 Jewish settlers, most carrying arms, continue to live in the centre of the town. Another 5,000 settlers live near the centre, in the settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip withdrew yesterday from their main bastions of occupation, the central prison and the military command centre. Their departure paves the way for the completion today of the the final redeployment of Israeli forces in Gaza, and the formal start of limited self-rule, less than two weeks after the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement in Cairo. It is not known when self-rule will be extended to other parts of the West Bank. Much depends on the success of the Gaza-Jericho experiment.

It was in the early hours that the last Israeli soldiers slipped out of the military complex in Gaza, which is viewed with horror by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. A mundane announcement from an army spokeswoman confirmed the historic move.

'This morning at about 3am the Israel Defence Forces evacuated two buildings in Gaza City - IDF headquarters and the civil administration complex,' it read. Soon afterwards Palestinians entered the buildings. They wandered around the 'slaughterhouse', the 'bus' and the 'fridge', names they gave to the cells where many of them had been imprisoned.

The town of Jericho, from which the Israelis withdrew last Friday, will receive a visit today from the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. The visit is expected to cause controversy. The Israeli government insists that the new Palestinian entity will not conduct its own foreign affairs, and will not be able to behave like an independent state.

Opposition members of the right-wing Likud Party saw the visit differently. 'We have given them a police, we have given them a flag. Now this visit is another step towards letting them have a state. It is a catastrophe,' said Dov Shilansky, a Likud member of the Knesset.

Saeb Erekat, a member of the new Palestinian authority, who is expected to be on the welcoming committee in Jericho, said that Palestinians had always had the right to conduct their own foreign affairs, and would never relinquish that right.

The main purpose of Mr Christopher's visit is to boost Israel's stalled negotiations with Syria. During his weekend visit to Damascus, there have been reports that the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, may show flexibility over his demand for Israel to withdrawal totally from the Golan Heights, before peace talks begin.

Leaders of the ruling Labour Party are sceptical about renewed progress. 'So far, I see no sign of progress with Syria,' said Ori Orr, chairman of Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.

(Photograph omitted)

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