Israeli units begin withdrawal from occupied territory

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The Independent Online
THE Israeli military is on the move from Gaza and a big base in Gaza City has been closed. The removal of heavy equipment from the centre of Jericho yesterday further raised expectations that withdrawal from the occupied areas was imminent.

At the same time it emerged that plans are being laid for an Israeli-Palestinian summit in Cairo to hail implementation of the Gaza-Jericho accords, as soon as sufficient progress has been made to ensure the deal can be done.

The last meeting between Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was a disaster, leading to the delay in the start of withdrawal, planned for 13 December. This time it is certain they will meet only if they are 100 per cent sure the agreement is in the bag.

Yesterday both Palestinian and Israeli leaders continued in their efforts to renew peace fever, with suggestions that the pull-out could be complete by the end of this month. Reports from Tunis quoted Mr Arafat as saying he expected to return to Jericho next month.

Despite the promises from politicians there remain considerable doubt on the ground about whether the complex arrangements being laid for autonomy can work, particularly with no plans to remove settlements in the near future. Israeli soldiers continued vigorously to patrol the streets in the occupied areas yesterday and clashes broke out in several places, leaving 24 Palestinians wounded.

There were growing fears that a power vacuum is being created in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. While Israel may be getting ready to withdraw there is as yet little sign of a Palestinian infrastructure being prepared to take the occupiers' place. Up to 300 Palestinian police are due to arrive in Gaza and Jericho on Thursday, although their ability to exercise any control remains entirely untested.

Palestinians in the streets remained extremely sceptical about the promises of the politicians. 'This time we'll believe it when we see it,' said one shop-keeper in Jericho.

Nevertheless, the military is clearly on the move, and Israel has now removed most prisoners from Ansar II prison camp in Gaza City to a detention facility in Israel's Negev desert.

Soufian Abu Zayda, a respected PLO official in Gaza, told state-contolled Israeli radio yesterday: 'It can be seen that the Israel army is evacuating a lot of areas, thinning out many forces and particularly a lot of equipment . . . and that says that the agreement is beginning to be implemented in the field. That is what is important.'

Benyamin Ben Eliezer, Israel's Housing Minister, said: 'Definitely we have agreed, in order to save time, that movement should be from both sides - as well as allowing the (Palestinian) police to get in, at the same time we are pulling out all forces that are not required to guarantee the area.'

The Israeli Environment Minister, Yosi Sarid, a top negotiator in earlier talks with the PLO, said after a cabinet meeting on the talks he believed talks in Cairo would be completed by the end of this month and the pull-out completed two or three days later.

A cartridge case that was found at the site of the Hebron mosque massacre does not match the rifles of the gunman or Israeli soldiers at the scene, a police ballistics expert said yesterday, AP reports.

His testimony gave credence to claims that a second gunman was involved.

(Photograph omitted)