Israel agrees to withdrawal from West Bank


JERUSALEM -- Israel is preparing to withdraw from most of the major cities in the West Bank after nearly three decades of a tormented military occupation that followed Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said last night they would sign an agreement on the withdrawal July 25. Mr. Peres later said the Israeli troop withdrawal would come before the end of the year, to allow Palestinian elections in 1995.

Not all the details have been worked out, and the two sides have consistently missed deadlines in the past. But Mr. Peres portrayed yesterday's meeting with Mr. Arafat as virtually conclusive.

"We have agreed on most points, not all. Some of the agreements are oral, some in writing," he said. "The problem was that putting everything down in writing would have required many more days and nights."

Public statements by Israel and the Palestinians have made clear they are in agreement on the overall principle of an Israeli withdrawal from six of the main West Bank cities. Israel promised to "redeploy" from Palestinian "populated areas" in its 1993 peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Israeli pullback would virtually double the population under the Palestinian Authority, which came into existence in May 1994 with Palestinian takeover of the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

Details remain unclear on an exact date for the redeployment of Israeli troops, on whether the Israeli army still will patrol Palestinian villages, and on who will control the roads in the West Bank.

But a withdrawal would mark a historical turn for Israel, which captured the West Bank from Jordan in a triumphal military sweep in the 1967 war.

Until 1992, a succession of right-wing Israeli governments saw the West Bank as Israel's biblical inheritance, and an overriding goal was to retain control. But the refusal of the Palestinian population, which grew to 40 percent the size of Israel's population, to accept the Israeli claim eventually brought a change in Israel's government.

The Labor-led government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin negotiated a peace plan with the Palestinians. Israel's ambivalence continues, however.

It wants tight control over the limits of Palestinian authority in the "autonomous areas." And Israel insists that its army retain authority to protect the roads and areas surrounding 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, settlements that will remain.

"We did not withdraw from security issues," Mr. Peres said after the meeting with Mr. Arafat in Gaza City.

Mr. Arafat told reporters: "We hope that we have achieved something concrete in our hand so that we can have, very soon, the agreement and the redeployment and after [that] the elections, putting in our consideration the Israeli need for security and to face terrorism."

The redeployment would begin with Israeli troops withdrawing from Jenin, Tulkaram, Qalqilya and Nablus, Mr. Peres told members of his Labor Party this week. Troops would leave Bethlehem and Ramallah when construction of new roads is finished, roads that would allow Jewish settlers to bypass the towns.

Israel would continue to patrol troubled Hebron, where 400 Jewish settlers live among 60,000 Palestinians and there are frequent clashes. The status of Arab East Jerusalem, over which Israel claims sovereignty, is to be negotiated later.

Civil authority in villages will pass to Palestinians, but Israel wants to retain authority for its troops to enter the villages and wants military control of open areas in the West Bank, Mr. Peres told the Labor Party. Palestinian control would be expanded by 1997, he added last night.

The Palestinians strongly object to the continued Israeli presence, however. Palestinians are concerned that the cities will be isolated and surrounded by Israeli army checkpoints, as are Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

These details are to be negotiated in the next three weeks by Uri Savir, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Palestinian official Ahmed Quri.

After the withdrawal, Palestinians are to hold internationally supervised elections for their authority and chairman, the first such elections in their history.

Two months after the elections, the Palestinians must repeal clauses in the PLO charter calling for the extinguishment of Israel. Without that change, "there will be no further redeployment" of Israeli troops, Mr. Rabin said last night.

Palestinians expect that some of the 5,400 Palestinian prisoners now being held in Israeli jails will be released shortly after the agreement is signed. The prisoners have been holding a sporadic hunger strike to demand their release.

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