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Israel Begins Withdrawal from Gaza While Efforts to Resume Talks Go on

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Israei has begun the process of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, even while Israeli and Palestinian officials continue in their efforts to restart the formal talks aimed at implementing Palestinian self-rule there.

In recent weeks, at least two bases belonging to the Israeli army and border police have been evacuated and their equipment and personnel relocated to positions behind the Green Line. Evacuation is also underway at other bases, where dozens of buildings have been trucked out of Gaza.

Army officials say that 70 percent of the evacuation has been completed, and that most of the rest could be concluded by mid-April.

Under the declaration of principles signed in Washington last September, the withdrawal was scheduled to begin Dec. 13 and conclude April 13. But the withdrawal has never formally begun because negotiations on the details of implementation have never been completed.

Completion of the withdrawal, according to the military, will require three to five weeks after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization sign an implementation agreement.

The meetings in Cairo this week, meanwhile, were focused on the details of new security arrangements for the West Bank town of Hebron. These meetings were designed to resolve that issue in order to return both sides to the main talks on Palestinian self-rule that were suspended in the wake of the Hebron massacre Feb. 25.

Talks took place Tuesday under a cloud of Palestinian grief and outrage after six members of the PLO’s Fatah faction were killed by Israeli undercover soldiers in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp Monday night.

‘NOT A NEGOTIATION’

This led PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to characterize Tuesday’s Cairo meeting as “not a negotiation” but merely a response by the Israeli side to PLO questions posed earlier.

Nonetheless, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in Jerusalem that he remained optimistic that an agreement would soon be reached on Hebron. Others in Jerusalem also remained optimistic that the talks could return soon to the issue of self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, as agreed to last September.

Israeli sources have confirmed that the evolving agreement in Hebron provides for Norwegian and Red Cross observers — their number still to be determined — to take up positions in the city.

Israeli sources said that while there is agreement on a small Palestinian police force to be deployed in Hebron under partial authority of the Israeli army, there was still disagreement as to the force’s size.

In Gaza and Jericho, Israel is likely to agree to a police force of some 8,000 men. Israeli officials said Tuesday they are ready for an advance party of this force to enter the two areas as soon as next week.

The killings in Jabalya did seem to throw awry the two sides’ intention to move from the Hebron issue straight into talks on self-rule.

Throughout Tuesday, serious violence swept the West Bank and parts of Gaza as young people took to the streets in a deliberate bid to seek confrontations with the army.

At Tuesday’s negotiating session in Cairo, the atmosphere was distinctly cold and tense in the wake of the shooting the night before.

The Israeli team is led by the army’s deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak and the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir.

The PLO delegation is headed by Nabil Sha’ath, who was quoted in interviews as referring to the shooting as “murder in cold blood.”

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, in a television interview, said the killing undermined Israel’s contention that the Hebron massacre was an isolated case perpetrated by a lone settler.

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