Israel transfers 7% of West Bank in 1st such turnover in 10 months; Barak fulfills pledge to Palestinians on eve of new peace talks


JERUSALEM -- In a move with more symbolic than practical consequences, Israel yesterday signed over 7 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian administrative control in the first such land transfer in 10 months.

The changeover is purely bureaucratic with Palestinians taking over civil responsibility for patches of territory that amount to 147 square miles.

More significant is the fact that the new Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is fulfilling his pledges to restart the peace process and to rebuild an atmosphere conducive to the more difficult work of forging a final peace treaty.

Talks on the final status are to begin Monday at the Erez checkpoint at the Gaza Strip. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians' No. 2 official, and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy will be conducting the talks. U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross also will attend.

Barak said yesterday on Israeli army radio that he hopes to see at least a "framework" for a final peace agreement reached by mid-February and a deal signed within one year.

"Whoever can't make a framework agreement in five months won't be able to forge a full, permanent accord even in five years," Barak said.

The transfer yesterday took place three days ahead of schedule.

Haj Ismail, a Palestinian commander, signed off on maps that had been submitted the night before to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The maps had been prepared last year by the Israeli army on orders of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the transfer that had been agreed to at White House brokered-talks in Wye, Md., was only partially implemented.

Last weekend in a big ceremony in Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt, Barak and Arafat signed off on a revised version of the Wye deal.

Israel fulfilled the first of its pledges Thursday -- releasing 199 Palestinian prisoners jailed for anti-Israel offenses.

Palestinian officials said the land transfer will affect only licensing, utility bills and other such bureaucratic matters in thinly populated land contiguous to cities already under Palestinian self-rule.

However, there will be some practical benefits -- for example, students at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah will no longer have to pass through Israeli territory on their way to campus, an issue in the past for students without the appropriate paperwork.

"It is one more step in the building of our state," said Saed Nassar, the assistant governor of Ramallah. "It shows that the peace process is a fact that we hope will lead to happiness on both sides."

The mood among the Palestinian leadership is nevertheless far more enthusiastic than that of most Palestinians.

More significant Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank are scheduled for mid-November and mid-January, involving the redeployment of Israeli troops.

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