Israel, PLO delay troop withdrawal

JERICHO, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK — JERICHO, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, failed at a meeting in Cairo yesterday to meet the first deadline for withdrawal of Israeli troops set out in their peace pact.

They said that they would negotiate again in about 10 days and that the delay wouldn't endanger the Israeli-PLO accord. But the failure was another blow to the peace plan, already reeling from fierce opposition and the steady parade of violence by both Jews and Arabs.


The bloodshed continued yesterday, when an Israeli bus was ambushed near the already-tense city of Hebron. The driver was hit in the chest by gunfire and seriously wounded.

Under the peace plan, Israeli troops were to begin withdrawing today from Jericho and the Gaza Strip. The pullout was to be completed in four months, and a three-month withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank was to follow.


Speculation remained that Israel would make a symbolic gesture today -- through the release of some Palestinian prisoners or a limited pullback of troops -- to mark the deadline.

But to Palestinians in Jericho, the announcement seemed to confirm their suspicion that little will change under the agreement signed with such fanfare on the White House lawn in Washington on Sept. 13.

"The people will not accept this," said a glum Abdul Kareem, who is in charge of the small storefront PLO office in Jericho.

He had been giving upbeat interviews all day to journalists come to see a historic turn in the long Israeli-Palestinian strife, and now he felt betrayed.

"This will concentrate their feelings that the Israelis didn't want to leave the land at all," he said. "It will be a problem."

"We've already been waiting for years, and nothing has happened," agreed Samir Grouf, 22, who waited in downtown Jericho for a celebration, only to be disappointed when the news came at 8 p.m. "As we see, nothing changes."

"We can wait another 10 days, but will something happen then?" asked his friend Mohammed Salameh.

Before the Arafat-Rabin announcement in Cairo, the Army post at the edge of Jericho already was empty -- moved five miles up the road -- and Palestinians were sticking flags on lampposts.


Mr. Arafat looked visibly discouraged when he appeared on television after the meeting with Mr. Rabin, who flew from Tel Aviv to Cairo yesterday afternoon.

"Ten days is not long," the chairman insisted to reporters. "The most important thing is that both of us are committed to the Declaration of Principles."

Mr. Arafat's own leadership has been challenged, and support for the agreement has plunged among the Palestinian public in the last three months.

Resolution expected

Mr. Rabin said at the press conference that he believes they will eventually resolve the differences. Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin disagree on the size of the Jericho area from which Israeli troops will withdraw and on who will control the border crossings next to Gaza and Jericho.

"We decided to give ourselves a certain time to rethink," Mr. Rabin said. "We need a little bit more time, and 10 days -- bearing in mind over 100 years of Palestinian-Jewish conflict -- is not too long."


Mr. Rabin, too, is being pressed by opponents to the accord. After yesterday's attack on the bus, Jewish settlers again staged demonstrations at major intersections throughout Israel. One group pushed past Israeli soldiers to march into the Arab city of Hebron, according to Army Radio.

Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, called on the prime minister to "show public integrity and say, 'I made a mistake.' "

"The minimum that can be demanded at this point from the prime minister is that he will not release additional terrorists, not return terrorists to the country and not establish an army of terrorists," Mr. Netanyahu said.

Palestinians have demanded Israel's release of about 12,000 prisoners, a return of as many as 6,000 Palestinians deported by Israel, and a police force partly composed of former Palestinian guerrillas.

No surprise to some

Israeli Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who had met with Mr. Arafat in Tunis last week, said he had expected the temporary deadlock.


"This is the nature of negotiations," he told Israel Radio. "The problem is complicated and complex. . . . Stubbornness was to be expected."

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the chief architect of the peace plan, said: "We've got four months to implement the agreement. I have no doubt we will implement the agreement."

Last night's shooting occurred about 6:30, when a public bus was sprayed by gunfire south of Hebron. Army officials last night would give no further details about the attack and would not say if anyone else was in the vehicle.

Four Palestinians and two Israelis have been killed in Hebron in the last eight days.

The Arab city, 20 miles south of Jerusalem, is adjacent to a Jewish settlement, and there has been constant friction between the populations.