Palestinians put out more West Bank flags

The outlines of the Oslo pact are gradually being realised, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem

By the end of this year the Palestinian flag will fly over six cities in the West Bank with a combined population of more than 300,000. Israeli troops will pull back from places they captured in 1967 and fought for in the intifada, probably never to return.

The general principles of the 1993 Oslo accord are gradually turning into reality on the ground, though distrust on both sides is producing a chequer-board of conflicting jurisdictions. Many Palestinians fear they are being confined to isolated Bantustans, while Israelis fear the autonomous areas will be havens for suicide bombers and Islamic militant gunmen.

After talks to be completed by 25 July, the shape of Israeli redeployment is becoming clear. The senior PLO negotiator, Abu Alaa, says Israeli troops will start to pull out from the cities a month after the agreement is signed and complete their withdrawal 22 to 25 days before the Palestinian elections.

The date for the election of a Palestinian council has yet to be agreed, although it is likely to be in November. Israel wants it to number 50 members, to make it look more like a local authority, while the Palestinians want 100 representatives, to emphasise its claim to be a legislature. There is also disagreement about whether people from Jerusalem can vote in the city or stand in the elections for the council.

Palestinians are conscious of what they are not getting. Out of the 5,600 square kilometres of the West Bank, Israel is withdrawing from little more than 200 sq km. "Given Israeli demands on security, water, settlements and Jerusalem, there is not much left for us," said Khalil Toufakji, a Palestinian geographer. Under present plans, said Khalili Shikaki, a political scientist, "the map of the West Bank is going to look ridiculous".

But the shift in power is greater than is evident from the lines drawn on the map. The Palestinians' greatest strength on the ground is that they number more than 1 million on the West Bank, while there are only 140,000 Jewish settlers. Since the start of the intifada in 1987, it has been evident that, even with full geographical control, Israeli rule could only be exerted by force. With six of the main Palestinian cities under control of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, the PLO chief, will effectively control the 450 villages and towns where a majority of the Palestinians on the West Bank live.

Where will this leave the settlers? Their presence has been one of the chief impediments to redeployment. In two cities, Bethlehem and Ramallah, there will be Israeli-PLO patrols until bypass roads are completed for the settlers. Elsewhere, across the West Bank, bulldozers are cutting new roads to allow, for instance, settlers from the north to bypass Nablus.

Hebron is a special case. It was the slaughter of 29 worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque in the city by Baruch Goldstein, a settler from nearby Kiryat Arba, early last year which first soured the post-Oslo optimism. But the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said: "We will not prevent 80,000 to 100,000 Palestinians [in Hebron] from voting in elections because of 415 Israelis."

Another massacre is still quite possible as the settlers feel the ground shifting under their feet, but militant settlers are thinner on the ground than would appear from the figures. Daoud Khuttab, a Palestinian commentator, says "many settlements are like hotel bedrooms. People go there to sleep, but they work and do everything else in Israel."

The greatest Palestinian fear is that they will find checkpoints choking access to their towns and cities. Their standard of living will decline if they are cut off from their agricultural hinterland.

Hisham Awartani, head of the department of economics at An Najah university in Nablus, said: "I keep telling people not to be surprised as they were in Gaza and Jericho. If there are checkpoints so people cannot enter the city, it will spell disaster to Nablus."

He said that when he visits Jericho, which gained autonomy last year, he has to pass through two checkpoints: "I wouldn't shop there."

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