Maps dispute draws new battle of Jericho: Sarah Helm reports from Jerusalem on areas of contention that are bedevilling the Israel-PLO deal

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THE Ordnance Survey car tographers who marked out the boundaries of Jericho in 1924, when it was part of British Mandate lands, did so with the familiar bold clarity they always used to map 'British territory'.

A large loop marks the boundary of the Jericho area, carefully ensuring that water sources and land are apportioned to the town, according to geography and title.

Palestinian leaders have dug out the old map to help them stake their claim to Jericho in the peace negotiations now under way. However, Ordnance 16 (1:100,000 Palestine) no longer holds any authority. Israel has dismissed Britain's definition of the Jericho region, proposing instead that the line match the municipal boundary, drawn by the Israeli military authorities in 1985, that runs round the neck of the town.

With less than a month to the deadline for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, as the first stage of the self-rule deal, many questions remain unanswered about how the handover to a Palestinian authority can work.

Both sides try to draw a veil over the 'Jericho question'. The size of the town is 'symbolic', say some. However, behind the scenes, this 'battle of Jericho' is being bitterly fought. Israel claims the Palestinians want too much and are trying to build the blocks of statehood. The Palestinians say Israel's refusal to grant a reasonable area to Jericho shows it has no real intention of allowing a truly autonomous Palestinian region.

Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), plans to live in Jericho and does not want his home to be a 'Bantustan'. Furthermore, the Palestinians claim Israel is making false excuses. While arguing it still needs the land for security, Israel has drawn up secret plans to build in the region, to underpin the Jewish presence on the east side of Jerusalem.

The size of Jericho will set crucial precedents for talks on the rest of the West Bank. Palestinians say the British Mandate map makes sense because it brought within a 'Jericho sub-district' 345 square km (133 sq miles) of land which was largely owned or used by Palestinian residents of Jericho before being taken over as state land. The British boundary also takes in the two bridges across the River Jordan, giving Jericho access to its neighbour, and all the springs which water the Jericho area. In addition, the boundary ascribes to the Jericho district a range of holy sites associated with the region, and brings in the northern tip of the Dead Sea.

'Without its water sources, Jericho is nothing. Without its holy sites, it is nothing. Without the Dead Sea, it is nothing,' said Khalil Tufakjee, a Palestinian geographer and negotiating-team member.

The British boundary, however, is far too wide for Israel to tolerate. First, it includes too many water sources. Second, since Britain mapped out Jericho, 17 Israeli settlements have been planted in the Ordnance Survey's 'sub-district'. Thirdly, Israel argues that handing over such a large area at such an early stage of self-rule constitutes a security risk. Instead, Israel has proposed granting Jericho an area drawn only around the main Palestinian residential area. The Jewish settlements would remain outside the boundary although some of the land they claim and a synagogue still remain inside even the Israeli- proposed boundary.

Early in the talks Palestinians agreed Israel could maintain a security zone 1km to 2km wide, running parallel with the Jordan River, and conceded that Israel should control the bridges. The Palestinians also redrew their boundary to place many of the settlements outside the Palestinan zone. Israel proposed a slightly larger boundary of its own but there talks have stalled.

It has emerged that Israel has activated plans for settlement east of Jerusalem taking in the town of Ma'aleh Adumim as well as the small settlements in the Jericho region and laying the groundwork for a 'flank' against infringement on Israel's claims to sovereignty over Jerusalem.

'Palestinians are asking if Israel is saying it is ready to hand back most of the West Bank soon, why are they arguing about this land around Jericho now? We are worried it means they will not be serious about handing back any land in the future,' Mr Tufakjee said.

Mr Arafat has published his own 'Jericho map', covering 500 sq km around the town and taking in 18 Jewish settlements. Here the negotiations stand.

(Map omitted)