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Israel Begins West Bank Withdrawal

March 21, 2000

BEITUNIA, West Bank (AP) _ Israel withdrew from 6.1 percent of the West Bank on Tuesday, giving Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a stronger hold over about 40 percent of the disputed territories as the two sides headed into talks on a final peace treaty.

The transfer helps create the territorial contiguity Arafat needs for future statehood. Palestinians celebrating the withdrawal said the handover brought them one step closer to Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as a capital.

``True happiness is when we get Jerusalem, which is separated from this city by just two villages,″ said Jamil Malie, a 70-year-old resident of Beitunia, north of Jerusalem and near the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

The Palestinians had demanded suburbs of Jerusalem for the withdrawal that was originally to have taken place Jan. 20, but Israel refused. The dispute stalled negotiations for five weeks.

A compromise gave the Palestinians villages near but not bordering Jerusalem. The withdrawal from lands abutting the Palestinian cities of Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus solidifies Arafat’s control over key parts of the West Bank.

In Beitunia, small crowds greeted jeeploads of Palestinian police who rolled into the new territories, firing their rifles into the air in celebration.

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators resumed talks near Washington on Tuesday over a framework agreement for a final peace treaty. The framework is due in May and the final treaty in September. Among issues on the table are Jerusalem, borders, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.

``We will be happy not to see Jewish settlers in the area and to have complete liberation, complete independence,″ said Mahmoud Afani, the owner of a wheat processing factory in the northern West Bank town of Salfeet, which came under Palestinian control Tuesday.

Other residents feared their businesses would be hurt because Jewish settlers would be afraid to enter Palestinian-controlled areas.

``Our towns were open to settlers, we could sell to them,″ said Assad Younis, a shop owner from Salfeet.

Palestinian police assured Israel that settlers would be safe in Palestinian areas.

Israeli soldiers tacked up signs Tuesday alerting motorists that they were entering Palestinian-controlled territory. Some Israeli motorists turned back.

The main road into a tiny Jewish settlement of mobile homes near Hebron came under Palestinian control Tuesday. A bypass road near Beitunia used by settlers remained under Israeli control.

In 5.1 percent of the West Bank being transferred, the Palestinians were already in charge of civilian institutions but were given security control as well. One percent of the West Bank went from full Israeli control to full Palestinian control.

The redeployment completes a three-part phase in a series of land transfers under interim peace accords. There was some dispute over how much land the Palestinians now control. Palestinian officials put the number at 42.9 percent, Israel said it was 39.8 percent, and U.S. officials said it was 40 percent.

The sides disagree over which areas should be considered the West Bank when calculating percentages.

Israel is to implement one more land transfer under interim accords, scheduled for June.

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