`early Empowerment’ Completed with Transfer of Health, Taxation

Implementation of Israel’s peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization passed another milestone this week as officials transferred authority for taxation and health affairs in the West Bank to the Palestinians.

The transfers on Thursday marked the completion of the so-called “early empowerment,” under Palestinians took over control of five key areas of authority in the West Bank, including education, welfare and tourism.

Israel formally handed over responsibility for tax collection at a ceremony Thursday in the civil administration building in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Health affairs were handed over during a ceremony in Nablus.

Thursday’s ceremonies were due to take place earlier this week, but were delayed until the Palestinian Authority received confirmation from donor countries meeting in Belgium that money would be available to cover day-to-day expenses for the next few months.

At a two-day meeting in Brussels, a group of foreign donor nations, acting along with the World Bank, agreed to provide about $200 million in grants and loans to support the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.

The transfer came just days before Israel and the PLO were due to meet in Cairo to begin negotiations on the next stage of autonomy.

Those negotiations will focus on the redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank and the scheduling of Palestinian elections.

The talks are expected to be difficult. Israel has expressed concern that the security of Israelis who live in the territories cannot be guaranteed if and when a troop withdrawal takes place.

According to the self-rule accord signed last year in Washington, the troop withdrawal should take place prior to the holding of Palestinian elections.

This week, some Israeli government officials spoke out about renegotiating the timetable of the self-rule accord.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told Israeli Radio on Wednesday that there was no point in being stuck in negotiations over an interim arrangement – which covers the first five years of Palestinian self-rule – and that it would be more effective to move ahead with negotiations on a permanent arrangement.

The permanent-status talks, which will cover such issues as settlements and who will control Jerusalem, are scheduled to begin in May 1996.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lashed out at Beilin for his remarks, saying, “The government will continue its policy toward negotiations on the interim arrangement.”

Beilin, one of the architects of the self-rule accord signed last year in Washington, offered his view of a final-status arrangement: A confederation between Jordan and the Palestinian entity, full demilitarization in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, changes to the 1967 borders and a Jerusalem united under Israeli rule.

As a result of Thursday’s transfers of authority, the Palestinians will now be responsible for collecting some $96 million in taxes from Arab residents of the West Bank. The agreement does not include Israelis who live in the territories.

Mohammed Nashashibi, the Palestinian Authority official in charge of finance, said he believed the self-rule government would be able to install the necessary mechanisms to collect these fees.

In preparation for the transfer, the Palestinian Authority has been recruiting tax and customs employees. Most Palestinians previously involved in such work resigned during the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. Those officials viewed Israel’s taxation of the territories as part of the government’s oppression of Palestinians.

In recent weeks, the officials have been undergoing training, and Israel will provide consultation services for the next six months.

In the area of health services, meanwhile, the Palestinians have an annual budget of some $33 million and some 2,000 Palestinian employees.

An Israeli civil administration spokesman said it would be up to Palestinian Authority to decide if it wants to maintain any relationship with the Israeli medical system.

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