In a determined effort to conclude an agreement for the next phase of Palestinian autonomy, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinians Authority leader Yasser Arafat met for a fourth straight day on Thursday.
The meeting was held at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba amid reports that the two sides were close to signing an agreement for expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
After a marathon session of talks with Arafat on Wednesday, Peres told reporters that agreement had been reached on many points. But Palestinian officials were less optimistic, warning that many issues remained unresolved, including security arrangements for the West Bank town of Hebron, control of water sources in the West Bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners and issues relating to Palestinian elections.
Israel Radio reported that the two sides have agreed to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the near future to discuss these problematic issues.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meeting in Eilat have already reached broad agreement for an Israeli army withdrawal prior to Palestinian elections from six Palestinian population centers in the West Bank – the so-called Zone A.
The two sides has also agreed that prior to the elections the Israeli army would withdraw from Zone B, which comprises Arab villages in the West Bank.
But Israel has balked at withdrawing its troops from Zone C, an area comprising Arab villages in the West Bank that are located near Jewish settlements.
In meetings earlier this week, Peres and Arafat agreed that an Israel Defense Force pullback from Zone C would place over the course of 18 months after the holding of Palestinian elections.
Local news reports indicated that Israel would retain responsibility for security in those areas until the redeployment – but that point is still under contention from the Palestinian side.
On the issue of Hebron, where some 400 Jewish settlers live among 80,000 Palestinians, Army Radio reported that Israel is willing to give the Palestinians governmental authority in the town, but insists on keeping the army there for security.
The talks at the Taba Red Sea resort came as Jewish settlers continued protesting in the West Bank against the expansion of Palestinian self-rule.
Not far from Hebron, dozens of settlers dug in at an abandoned structure near Givat Harsina. In defiance of an army eviction order, they soldered iron bars to the structure’s windows, deciding to remain there if security forces came to remove them.
The Protesters said the area is within the boundaries of the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.
In other parts of the West Bank, security forces removed demonstrators from several sites, including Nebi Samuel, located north of Jerusalem, and Ofra.
Meanwhile, settler leaders said hundreds of settlers were planning to retake Givat Hadagan, a hilltop near the West bank settlement of Efrat that was the site of some of the first settler demonstrations in late July.