West Bank Withdrawal Talks Quietly Begin, Settlers Protest
ZICHRON YAKOV, Israel (AP) _ Dozens of Jewish settlers protested outside a secluded hilltop resort Sunday as 200 Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed talks aimed at clinching a deal on a West Bank troop withdrawal by their July 25 deadline.
The settlers charged that the government was endangering Israeli security by agreeing to hand parts of the West Bank over to PLO rule.
``If this government gets its way, my children will get killed,″ said Eve Harrow, a mother of six from the Jewish settlement of Efrat, south of Jerusalem.
Several Palestinian negotiators were delayed when they got stuck in a traffic jam caused by right-wing Israelis driving slowly in a 60-car convoy as part of the protests.
The PLO’s deputy finance minister, Atef Alawneh, said protesters shouted abuses at him on the way to the hotel. ``There is an atmosphere of terror, not negotiations,″ he said. Another negotiator, Hassan Asfour, said protesters pounded on his car.
Israeli officials were optimistic Sunday that they could soon wrap up an agreement on a troop pullback and Palestinian elections.
``It’s very close... and the negotiations can be concluded in a few days,″ said Environment Minister Yossi Sarid.
But Yasser Arafat’s spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, said wide gaps remained between the two sides.
Israel has agreed to withdraw troops immediately from four of the seven major Arab towns in the West bank, but is demanding it withdraw gradually from the towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem. Each stage of withdrawal would depend on the success of the Palestinian police in preventing attacks on Israelis.
Israel’s Channel Two TV reported the sides were nearing compromise over Hebron, which Israel wants to keep because of the 450 Jewish settlers there. The report said Israel is willing to reduce the number of troops in Hebron and let a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee supervise them.
Israel is also now willing to allow PLO police to operate in West Bank areas outside the autonomous zones, but only in coordination with the Israeli army, Channel Two said.
``The extent of redeployment is still under dispute, including the land between the towns,″ PLO Labor Minister Samir Ghosheh told The Associated Press.
Other sticking points are control over water and the size and powers of a Palestinian council that is to govern the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The talks involving 150 Israeli and 50 Palestinian negotiators are being held in a hotel in Zichron Yakov, a resort south of the port city of Haifa. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has rented the hotel until July 24.
A poll released Sunday showed most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank support the emerging agreement. Of the 1,109 Palestinians surveyed, 55.9 percent said they backed it, while 29 percent opposed it.
The survey, conducted by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, questioned 719 West Bank residents and 390 Gaza Strip residents and has a 3 percent margin of error.
In Jerusalem, the Cabinet discussed how to pay for the troop withdrawal and paving bypass roads for the 135,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Finance Minister Avraham Shohat said initial estimates put the cost at $850 million, but that the figure would probably be lower.
Shohat said Cabinet ministers would have to cut their budgets or else the government would have to raise taxes in an election year.
In Hebron, where ethnic tensions traditionally run higher than elsewhere in the West Bank, Jewish settlers and Palestinians hurled stones at each other and 25 settlers were detained, police said Sunday.
The confrontation began Saturday afternoon when Jewish teen-agers using slingshots fired rubber pellets and stones at Palestinians passing by the Jewish enclave of Beit Hadassah, said police spokesman Eric Bar-Chen.
Police reported scuffles between right-wing settlers and Israeli police in Hebron later Saturday and on Sunday after the 25 settlers were detained.
No serious injuries were reported in the incidents.