New Palestinian state shackled at birth

West Bank deal: Autonomy over internal affairs agreed but Israelis share control of Hebron and `areas of strategic importance'
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The Independent Online
The accord on partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, agreed yesterday, means a significant change in the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians. In effect a Palestinian state is being born. For the first time the 2.1 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will be not be under the direct control of a foreign power.

This is the main gain for the Palestinians. But never has the self-determination of a people been so hemmed about with restrictions and limitations on their authority. Israeli troops will keep control of 70 per cent of the West Bank even as they pull out of six cities - Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Tulkarm, Jenin and Qalqiliya - as well as most of Hebron.

The 400-page document creates a complex jigsaw in which the authority of Israel and the newly created Palestinian Council are meant to fit together. Many critical details are not spelled out, but it does "allow Palestinians to conduct their own internal affairs".

Starting 10 days after the agreement is signed in Washington on Thursday, the Israeli army (IDF) will withdraw from the six cities as well as 450 towns and villages to leave "almost no IDF presence in Palestinian population centres". Internal security will be conducted differently in three types of area. In the six cities the Palestinian Council will have full military, police and civil powers. The towns and villages, where 68 per cent of Palestinians live, will have their own police, but Israeli troops will still be able to enter to protect settlers or look for guerrillas. In "unpopulated areas, areas of strategic importance to Israel and the Jewish settlements", Israel retains all military and police powers.

The new 82-member Palestinian Council will be elected by all Palestinians over 18 in Gaza and the West Bank, with special arrangements for Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote or to stand for election. The election will take place 22 days after the Israeli redeployment - the Palestinians would like it to be on 20 January. A separate ballot will be held at the same time for the head of the Executive Authority of the Council, which is expected to be the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat. The Council will have full security and civil powers, and with its establishment on the West Bank "the Israeli military government will be withdrawn".

The agreement provides for a 12,000-strong Palestinian police force. Israel and the Palestinian Council will "co-operate in the fight against terrorism and the prevention of terrorist attacks". Joint security committees will co-ordinate the actions of the Israeli army and the Palestinian police, but Israelis "may not in any circumstances be arrested or placed in custody by the Palestinian police". The abstract does not spell out how far Palestinians will have similar freedom of movement - people in the six cities fear they will be isolated and commercially crippled by Israeli checkpoints on their access roads.

Once the Council is inaugurated there will be further Israeli redeployments at six-month intervals. Other parts of the area where Israel has full military and police control will be transferred to the Palestinians. The purpose is for Palestinian jurisdiction to cover the West Bank, apart from areas where Israel has settlements or military needs, to be discussed next year in the final negotiations.

Hebron, capital of the southern West Bank where 380,000 Palestinians live, has special arrangements because of 400 Jewish settlers in the heart of the city. In six months Israeli troops in Hebron will redeploy, so they will be in charge only of protecting the settlers and people visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Israel will remain in control. Press reports say Israel will leave all but 15 per cent of Hebron and give up its military headquarters, but the real division of power will only be evident when the new Israeli deployment is known.

The release of 5,200 Palestinians in three stages held up the signing of the accord, and it is not clear that full agreement has been reached. At least 1,000 prisoners will be freed on Thursday, including males over 50 and under 18, as well as prisoners who have concluded two-thirds of their sentences. The next releases will be at the time of the elections and the third stage later.