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Palestinians Cut Size of Delegation As Israel Allows More Deportees Home

In a sign that it feels its concerns are being ignored, the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks here has cut the size of its negotiating team from 14 to three and suspended its participation in working groups set up to deal with autonomy arrangements and with land and water issues.

The move, announced Monday, was protested by the Israelis. In a statement, they said the action “constitutes a violation of the agreement reached between the sides and disrupts the proper functioning of the working groups which we have both agreed upon.”

At the same time, though, Israel announced it would let an additional 25 of the 415 Palestinians deported to Lebanon last December return to the administered territories.

Seventeen other deportees have already been allowed back, and Israel earlier announced its willingness to let 101 of the deportees return immediately from Lebanon, where they have been stranded between Israeli and Lebanese army lines.

The fate of the deportees has been a chief concern of the Palestinian negotiators, some of whom had been opposed to resuming negotiations with Israel two weeks ago until the matter was resolved.

The delegation explained its move Monday by saying that Israel had not fulfilled commitments it had made to the Palestinians, including the “speedy return” of the deportees.

The decision to reduce the size of the negotiating team was first announced in Tunis, where the head of the overall delegation, Faisal Husseini, held weekend consultations with the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership.

Haidar Abdel-Shafi, chief of the Palestinian negotiating team, was also absent from Monday’s round of talks with the Israelis, leaving negotiator Saeb Erekat to lead the truncated delegation.

Monday’s move followed a decision by the Palestinians last week to suspend their participation in a third working group with the Israelis, this one dealing with human rights issues in the territories.

That move had baffled the Israelis, both because the Palestinians had requested the working group in the first place and because it appeared that the talks were making headway.

‘SERIOUS BACKSLIDING’ ALLEGED

But the Palestinians apparently did not feel that way. In the statement issued Monday, they accused Israel of showing a “lack of seriousness” in the negotiations.

In particular, the Palestinians lambasted a draft statement of principles Israel had issued as showing “serious backsliding” and a “return to earlier unworkable positions.”

The mood was a sharp contrast to the euphoria that greeted Israel’s decision two weeks ago to allow 30 Palestinians deported from the territories prior to 1987 to return.

Late last week, the Israelis still seemed hopeful of concluding this ninth round of bilateral negotations with “something concrete” that the Palestinians could then show their constituency back home, as delegation spokesman Yossi Gal put it.

“It is high time the Israelis and Palestinians show that they can reach agreement” on something, Gal said last Friday.

In the wake of the Palestinian move Monday, such a harmonious ending seemed unlikely. Still, both sides were careful not to slam the doors.

The Palestinians said they were “seriously pursuing a joint declaration of principles that could serve as an effective guide for the future course of negotiations.”

And the Israelis, for their part, said that “for the sake of the negotiations and our commitment to peace, we have decided to continue the talks, even under the present circumstances.”

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