Israel and the Palestinians held a marathon round of talks this week aimed at reaching an interim agreement on Palestinian self-rule in time for a signing ceremony in Washington.
But after three straight days of talks between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat at the Red Sea resort of Taba, it remained under Monday whether Thursday’s target date would be met.
Nonetheless, reports from Washington said the Israeli Embassy there was still making preparations for a possible signing ceremony.
The White House, preparing for the possibility that the signing would have to deferred, said Monday that it would not consider it a setback if the two sides were not ready to sign by Thursday.
Although progress was made at Taba on such issues as water rights in the West Bank and the Palestinian elections, differences over control over the West Bank town of Hebron prevented the two sides from reaching an agreement.
On issues surrounding the elections, Israel reportedly agreed for the first time that 82 elected Palestinian representatives would serve in a body that would have legislative and executive powers.
Israel had previously insisted that the elected body have only 32 members serving in an administrative body that did not resemble a national government.
Israel also reportedly agreed for the first time to let Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem participate in the elections.
Among the issues still to be resolved at Taba are control over electricity in the West Bank and the release of Palestinian prisoners. But the chief dispute revolves around Hebron.
“There were many important problems that have been solved,” Peres told reporters during a break in the talks Monday. “On Hebron, we are still considering the best solution.”
In an effort to overcome the differences, Israel softened its position, saying that it was ready to cede most control over security in Hebron to the Palestinians, except in the areas of Jewish settlements.
But the Palestinian side, despite accepting a gradual Israel troop withdrawal in Hebron, ultimately wants the withdrawal to be complete. It also wants Israel to acknowledge that Hebron – along with the six other West Bank cities that will come under self-rule under the terms of the interim agreement – is a Palestinian city.
“It is impossible to reach an agreement without Hebron,” Palestinian Authority official Nabil Sha’ath told reporters. “It is part and parcel of the rest of the West Bank.”
The Israel daily Ha’aretz reported that the Israeli proposal called for dividing Hebron into three areas.
One area would be under complete Israeli control; another would be under the administrative authority of the Palestinians, but would have security in the hands of Israel; and a third area would be under sole Palestinian control.
In addition, the Israeli proposal called for a bypass road to be built linking the Jewish settlements in the area.
But the Palestinians rejected the proposal and continued to hold out for terms granting the self-rule authority full sovereignty over Hebron.
Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe, who participated in the Taba talks this week, said signing an agreement would depend on the removal of the 400 Jewish settlers living in Hebron.
Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported that American officials visited Hebron on Monday to get a first-hand view of the situation there.
The visit came as Palestinians moved a number of municipal offices from the outskirts of the town to the center, in an ongoing effort to reassert their presence in the city.
In another related development, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem issued a report calling for the removal of the Jewish settlers from Hebron.
B’Tselem officials said the presence of the settlers in Hebron was responsible for continuing human rights violations there, despite the Israeli measures put into place after the February 1994 Hebron massacre.
“It is unfathomable that 400 Jewish settlers should dictate the lives of 120,000 Palestinians in Hebron,” B’Tselem Director Yizhar Beer said at a news conference Monday in Jerusalem, where he presented the findings.
“Until now, we did not openly call for the removal of settlements,” he said. “But it has become cleat that the [negative effects] of removing the settlers is nothing compared to what would happen if they remained.”
Beer maintained that the report, which reflected the group’s first public stand against Jewish settlements, was not political, but based on the assessment of their research.
According to the report, 26 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces since the Hebron massacre, when 29 Muslim worshipers were shot dead by a Jewish settler from Kiryat Arba.
The report, titled “Impossible Coexistence,” also noted that freedom of movement was significantly restricted for local Palestinians by Israeli roadblocks, checkpoints and curfews.
Violent house searches and harassment by Israeli security forces were also routine, the report claimed.
The authors also noted that Israeli security forces were lenient when dealing with infractions by Jewish settlers.
Settlers leaders denounced the report, calling it a purely political statement that completely ignored human rights violations inflicted upon the Jewish residents of Hebron.