Israel gives back part of West Bank

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The Independent Online

Jeep-loads of Palestinian police rolled into 6.1 percent of the West Bank Tuesday, firing AK-47 rifles into the air to celebrate an overdue Israeli troop withdrawal that fulfills a key obligation of peace accords.

Jeep-loads of Palestinian police rolled into 6.1 percent of the West Bank Tuesday, firing AK-47 rifles into the air to celebrate an overdue Israeli troop withdrawal that fulfills a key obligation of peace accords.

Israeli army officers in this town near the West Bank city of Ramallah shook hands with Palestinian security officers and handed them copies of maps outlining the handover. Soldiers placed yellow and brown blocks marking the new boundary.

Similar ceremonies were taking place near the West Bank cities of Hebron and Nablus.

Beitunia residents set off firecrackers, honked car horns and waved to the police.

"We welcome the brave ones," said Mohammed al-Khalidi, an elderly boy scout leader in Beitunia who greeted the policemen as they drove into his town.

The transfer gives the Palestinians populated swaths of land abutting cities already under Palestinian control, creating the territorial contiguity Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat needs for future statehood.

In 5.1 percent of the West Bank being transferred, the Palestinians were already in charge of civilian institutions but were being given security control, too. One percent of the West Bank was going from full Israeli control to full Palestinian control.

The Palestinians had demanded suburbs of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital, for the withdrawal that was originally to have taken place Jan. 20.

A compromise gives the Palestinians villages near but not abutting Jerusalem - a point not lost on residents of the areas handed over.

"We no longer have to feel that we are going from one country to another as we travel from Ramallah to Beitunia," said Ghalib Bader, a 45-year-old bakery owner. "God willing, we will connect to Jerusalem."

The withdrawal came just hours after two separate shooting incidents Monday night in which a Palestinian woman was killed and her husband and three Israelis were injured.

The Israelis were injured, one of them seriously, after gunmen in a car opened fire as they were delivering holiday baskets for the Jewish festival of Purim to soldiers near Hebron. Israeli soldiers set up roadblocks following the attack and later opened fire on a Palestinian car, killing the woman and seriously injuring her husband.

The Israeli army said in a statement Tuesday that the soldiers opened fire after the vehicle's driver tried to run over one of the soldiers at the checkpoint. The army was investigating the incident.

Col. Awni Nache, a Palestinian security official in charge of the Hebron area, said it appeared as though soldiers opened fire on the Palestinian car to avenge the shooting of the three Israelis.

"Why would a husband and wife not stop at a checkpoint?" he said.

Israeli settlers complained that the withdrawal in the Beitunia area, which would give the Palestinians full control over areas one mile from a main Israeli highway and from the Jewish settlement Givat Zeev, endangered their security.

A bypass road through the area leading to central Israel was to remain in Israeli control. Soldiers tacked up signs telling motorists that they were entering a Palestinian-controlled area.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority were on high security alert for Tuesday's arrival of Pope John Paul II for a historic six-day Holy Land pilgrimage.

The redeployment completes a three-part phase in a series of land transfers under interim peace accords. There was some dispute over how much land the Palestinians now control. Palestinian officials put the number at 42.9 percent, while Israel said it was closer to 40 percent, a figure with which U.S. officials concurred.

The two sides disagree over which areas should be considered the West Bank when calculating percentages.

Israel is to implement one more land transfer under interim accords, scheduled for June.

Negotiators were to resume talks over a framework agreement for a final peace treaty, slated for May, outside Washington Tuesday. The treaty itself is due in September.

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