West Bank land transfer under way
Web posted at: 4:23 a.m. EST (0923 GMT)
JENIN, West Bank (CNN) -- A handshake between soldiers across a table Friday launched the first handover of Israeli-held West Bank land to Palestinians in nearly two years.
The groundbreaking deal was the first step in a land-for- security initiative brokered last month in the United States.
Preparing the way for the transfer, Israeli and Palestinian commanders began poring over maps designating the 500 square km (195 square miles) of land around the self-rule city of Jenin which were due to come under full or partial Palestinian control from Friday
Israeli soldiers began erecting concrete road markers and posting big red-lettered signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic to demarcate areas coming under Palestinian control.
"Caution -- Palestinian Area. No Entry for Israelis," the signs said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the reluctant heir of the Oslo peace process launched in 1993, defended the redeployment which got the green light from his Cabinet on Thursday by a vote of 7-5 with three abstentions.
In remarks broadcast by Israel Radio, Netanyahu said: "We made a deal the majority of people support.
"Gradually I believe everyone will understand this is the only way, given the situation of the agreements we inherited, to make progress towards a peace deal with security with our neighbors."
The battle for peace
At the Jenin liaison office, Israel's central area commander, Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, met his Palestinian counterpart, the commander of Palestinian forces in the West Bank and Gaza, Haj Ismail Jabr.
Sameh Kanaan, a deputy commander of the Palestinian preventive security force, told Israel Radio: "This is an important step for the peace process."
"We can maintain order and battle anything opposed to the peace process," he said.
As Palestinians living around Jenin celebrated their new status, Israel began freeing 250 Palestinian prisoners and planned to sign an agreement for the opening of a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip -- additional steps outlined in the peace accord.
Concerns on prisoner release
An Israeli prison services spokeswoman said the prisoners were on buses traveling to three crossing points, two with the West Bank and one with the Gaza Strip, where they would be returned to Palestinian-controlled territory.
Israel said earlier that 100 of those to be released would be political detainees and the rest common criminals, angering Palestinian officials who expected all would be political prisoners.
One group of prisoners arrived at the Nahal Oz crossing into Gaza, but on the Palestinian side of the transit point no one was on hand to receive them in a show of protest, witnesses said.
"Whoever thinks we're happy is insane," Hisham Abdel-Razek, the main Palestinian negotiator on the issue, said.
"Israel is violating the agreement. The U.S. should immediately intervene to stop Israeli non-compliance with the agreement."
Palestinians said the troop redeployment would bring another 28 Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank under complete Palestinian control. Since Israel has no military bases in the areas, the handover was expected to take place unceremoniously.
"There will be a handshake at some point and that's about it," said Jibril al-Rajoub, the Palestinian Preventive Security chief in the West Bank.
Stamp of approval
Israel's Cabinet gave the go-ahead for the withdrawal on Thursday after it agreed that the Palestinians had met their initial security obligations under the three-stage accord signed at the White House on October 23.
It was the surest sign yet that the Wye River accord between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was on track after repeated delays and volleys of belligerent rhetoric.
The United States, which brokered the deal, sought to bolster it on Thursday with the announcement of plans to seek billions of dollars in international aid for the Palestinians.
On Friday, after a meeting with Clinton in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi gave a commitment of $200 million to the Palestinians.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said President Bill Clinton had invited 50 nations and multilateral organizations to attend a donors' conference in Washington on November 30.
The pullback is Israel's first from land it captured in the 1967 Six Day War since Netanyahu handed over most of the West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinian rule in January 1997.
Two percent of the territory will come under Palestinian civil rule and another 7.1 percent will switch to full control.
Palestinian officials said an agreement with Israel to open the Gaza airport, an economic lifeline which Palestinians also see as a symbol of sovereignty, would be signed on Friday in Tel Aviv. It was not clear when the airport would begin operating.
The accord commits Israel to cede 13 percent of the West Bank in three phases over 12 weeks in return for a Palestinian crackdown on the militants and other political moves.
It also obliges Israel to give the Palestinian Authority full control over 14.2 percent of the West Bank where the Palestinians now have civil rule but Israel governs security.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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