AFTER yesterday's signing of the landmark Gaza-Jericho peace accord in Cairo, Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, announced that his country's withdrawal from the Palestinian-controlled areas could be complete within 10 days.
After 27 years of occupation, Palestinians at last have cause to believe that they will taste freedom and start to shed the yoke of military rule. The first proof of this may come today, as the first batch of a 9,000- strong Palestinian police force enters Gaza and Jericho.
After a dispute during the signing ceremony, both Mr Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, pledged to work for a new era of peaceful coexistence between the Israelis and Palestinians. After seven months of talks, blighted in February by the Hebron massacre, both seemed determined to confound sceptics by spelling out once again their vision of Middle East peace.
'There is no limit to the new hope that we are taking along with us upon our departure from here. There is no limit to our goodwill, to our will to see historical reconciliation between two peoples who have lived by their swords up to the present time,' said Mr Rabin. Mr Arafat told the ceremony's 2,000-strong audience: 'I am convinced that the people of Palestine will welcome this new era. Coexistence is possible.'
Despite the proclamations, both leaders yesterday displayed an acute awareness of the enormous dificulties ahead. After the ceremony, Mr Rabin gave a much cooler assessment of the chances of implementing the accords. Tacitly, he accused Mr Arafat of failing to prepare for the task of running the new enclaves. The Israeli leader revealed that Mr Arafat had suggested the PLO may need four more weeks before its administrators are ready take over all the reins of authority.
'Arafat said he would like to delay for up to four weeks,' said Mr Rabin. 'We want to get out as fast as possible.' He appeared to be preparing both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion for the potential pay- offs in Gaza and Jericho, firmly blaming Mr Arafat.
The signing dispute showed just how little trust has been achieved between these two men since they shook hands in September. The rumpus centred on a failure to agree on the size of the Jericho enclave. During six hours of talks on Tuesday night, Israel presented a map of Jericho covering 62sq km. Mr Arafat asked for more, and yesterday refused to sign the Jericho map.
In addition, the PLO has so far failed to secure agreement for the stationing of a Palestinian policeman on the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, which it regards as an essential symbol of sovereignty. Many other issues remain unresolved.
Throughout the negotiations, Mr Rabin has withheld symbols of sovereignty demanded by Mr Arafat, maintaining that there will be no Palestinian state when discussions on the final status of the land begins in two years' time.
Mr Arafat risked Israeli anger by raising issues of Jerusalem, settlements and refugees - theoretically all final status questions. Notably, he was the only speaker to raise the explosive problem of Hebron.
In the occupied territories, where Mr Arafat is widely seen to be selling out the Palestinian cause, there was little euphoria. Palestinian youths clashed with Israeli soldiers in Jericho. Palestinian leaders from the occupied territories were barely represented at the ceremony, signalling the division between leaders which is now likely to come into the open.
Peace countdown, pages 10, 11
Leading article, page 19
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