JERUSALEM (Aug. 28)
Pressing forward with the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, the Israeli Cabinet has unanimously ratified an agreement that transfers control over civilian affairs to Palestinians throughout the West Bank.
The Cabinet took the step despite calls from Israeli opposition leaders for the ministers to suspend the accord because of a terrorist attack within Israel’s borders over the weekend that left two Israelis dead.
The so-called “early empowerment” agreement, which was initialed last week by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, provides for the transfer of control to the Palestinians over taxation, education, health, social welfare and tourism.
The timing for the implementation of the accord, which was approved Saturday by the Palestinian governing authority, still has to be worked out.
However, because of the start of the new school year on Sept. 1, responsibility for education in the West Bank’s seven school districts officially fell under Palestinian control last week.
The overall agreement was scheduled to be signed Monday at the Erez checkpoint separating the Gaza Strip and Israel by the leaders of the two negotiating teams, Maj. Gen. Danny Roths-child for Israel and his Palestinian counterpart, Nabil Sha’ath.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat had originally been scheduled to sign the accord at Erez. It was unclear whether the terrorist attack near Tel Aviv last Friday was responsible for the change.
In that incident, Shlomo Kepach, 22, of Holon, and his friend Gil Revah, 21, of Bat Yam, were found with their throats slashed at a construction site in Ramle, where they were working on the installation of an elevator for a new five-story building.
HAMAS CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY
A search began for the two when their families grew concerned that the men had not returned home from work at the usual hour. Police were summoned to the construction site after a foreman found the two bodies lying in pools of blood on the fourth and fifth stories of the newly constructed building.
Police found a blood-stained knife as well as a pack of cigarettes that had the word “Hamas” inscribed on it.
Members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement later claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was the third of five attacks planned in reprisal for the Feb. 25 Hebron massacre. In that incident, Israeli settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Palestinians praying at a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29.
In April, Hamas claimed responsibility for two separate bomb attacks on buses in the Israeli towns of Afula and Hadera. Fourteen Israelis died in the two attacks, which also left more than 80 wounded.
In its statement, Hamas said it would strike two more times before the end of the year.
Last Friday’s attack was the first on a target within Israel since the implementation of Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank enclave of Jericho in mid-May.
Police officials said no arrests were made, but that they suspected the murders were carried out by Palestinian workers. Police subsequently staged a nationwide sweep for Palestinians working within Israel without work permits.
According to police officials, more than 200 Palestinians without permists were detained. The police said their Israeli employers, who reap the financial benefits of hiring the low-paid workers, would be subject to heavy fines.
Following the murders, a group of angry Ramle residents gathered in the streets, where they burned tires, threw rocks at police, shouted anti-government slogans and pledged vengeance.
According to the police, 23 Israelis were arrested during the Ramle riots.
Residents of Holon and Bat Yam, the hometowns of the two victims, also held angry demonstrations.
The slain men were buried in the Holon cemetery Sunday afternoon.
RABIN REJECTS CLOSURE OF BORDERS
Israeli opposition leaders called on the government to seal off the territories to prevent Palestinians from working within Israel, a measure taken several times in the past, following terrorist acts against Israelis.
But Rabin rejected calls to impose another he closure on the territories. At the Cabinet meeting, he called instead for a crackdown on Israeli employers who offer work to illegal Palestinian workers.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, responding to right-wing calls for the government to suspend the early empowerment agreement, urged a more low-key response. He said that terrorism could best be fought by improving the living conditions of Palestinians.
“There are those who believe we can shoot at Hamas with cannons or with guns and be done with them. We tried that route for many years with partial results,” he told Army Radio. “In my opinion, the way to liquidate terrorism is by getting rid of the reasons for it, political and economic.”
The agreement on early empowerment represents the second phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative outlined in the Palestinian self-rule accord signed last September in Washington. The first phase took place in May, with the granting of Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and Jericho.
During a Cabinet meeting recess on Sunday, Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said Israel had decided to go ahead with the latest agreement because it had already been initialed.
But he warned that if the Palestinian gov- erning authority did not take steps tocontrol violence against Israelis by Islamic militants, further phases of the peace process could be imperiled.
Sarid also said Israel was demanding that the Palestinian officials catch and hand over to Israel the militants responsible for last Friday’s terrorist attack.
(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)