PLO and Israel haggle away as deadline arrives

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The Independent Online
WITH BOTH the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israelis at last agreeing that today's Gaza-Jericho deadline cannot be met, the two sides yesterday put a brave face on their failure. They insisted Palestinian 'autonomy' in the two cities would begin within weeks, but argued over the release of another 5,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Both Major-General Amnon Shahak, the Israeli army's deputy chief of staff, and Nabil Shaath, the senior PLO negotiator, confirmed their agreement on a 9,000-strong Palestinian police force armed with rifles and machine-guns, 7,000 of them to be drawn from PLO forces in Egypt and Jordan.

They conceded that critical issues - including the jurisdiction of PLO and Israeli forces, arrangements for 'safe passage' between Jericho and Gaza and water resources - still had to be settled before the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, could sign the latest stage of the peace agreement. Most important, General Shahak and Mr Shaath disagreed profoundly on the identity of 5,000 Palestinians to be released by the Israelis in two stages, after the signing ceremony, and after the PLO's deployment in Gaza and Jericho.

According to the Israelis, only PLO members will be freed. 'We explained that Hamas prisoners will not be released, because they are against peace,' General Shahak said, adding there would be no freedom for Palestinians arrested for 'crimes and terrorist activities' committed after 13 September, the day on which Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin first shook hands on the White House lawn.

Aware that such conditions would further divide Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories - where the PLO is running a poor second to Hamas and other Islamic groups - Mr Shaath refused to accept the terms of these prisoner releases.

'We are responsible for all Palestinian people, not only for Fatah prisoners,' he said in Cairo yesterday as the Israelis left for another four-day break from the talks, this time caused - according to the Israelis - by their Independence Day. 'I know there are some sensitivities with the Israelis, especially after Afula,' Mr Shaath added, referring to the deaths of seven Israelis and one Israeli Arab in last week's Hamas suicide bombing.

But the identities of prisoners to be released would be the subject of further discussion. Mr Shaath said both the PLO and the Israelis were prepared to delay a number of points until after the signing, including the use of joint radio bands for the PLO and Israeli security forces, and legal co-operation on civilian law suits.