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World - Middle East

Israel hands over more West Bank land to Palestinians

September 10, 1999
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel transferred 7 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian civil control on Friday, three days ahead of deadline, giving fresh momentum to a newly reinvigorated Middle East peace process.

Israeli representatives presented Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat maps detailing the handover of some 400 square kilometers of the West Bank. After Arafat gave his approval, the maps were signed by Haj Ismail, commander of Palestinian national forces in the West Bank and Gaza.

Though the agreement relinquishes civil authority to the Palestinians, Israel retains overall security responsibility for the time being, and has not withdrawn any troops. But Palestinians say civil administration of the new territory -- known under the agreement as Area B -- is important.

"In these areas that are transferred to Area B, people will know: No settlements, no confiscation of land because the land becomes Palestinian, no house demolition, nothing of this," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.

First land transfer since November

The handover was the first transfer of land since Israel withdrew from 2 percent of the West Bank last November under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel froze the Wye River land-for-security accord one month later, accusing the Palestinians of failing to fulfill their security responsibilities.

Israel tightened security in public places, such as the Jerusalem market where people completed their preparations for the Jewish New Year  

Wye sprang back to life last weekend, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat signed a revised accord in Egypt. On Thursday, Israel took its first step in implementing the new deal, releasing 199 Palestinian prisoners.

Jewish settlers, who have vowed to rally against the agreement, mounted no immediate protests Friday as Israel prepared to usher in the two-day Jewish New Year starting at sundown.

But the main opposition Likud party criticized Barak for "handing Arafat territory without the Palestinians having fulfilled even one of their commitments in the Wye agreement."

Israel has pledged to complete two further phases of withdrawal from the West Bank -- one in October and another in January -- effectively giving Palestinians control of more than 40 percent of the territory.

On Monday, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will formally launch "final status" talks on a permanent peace agreement.

The two sides have set February 15 as a target date for reaching the outlines of a final peace deal and September 2000 as the deadline for the agreement itself. In the agreement, the two sides have to settle thorny issues such as Palestinian statehood, final borders, the status of Jerusalem, the future of the settlements and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.

"At last we're leaving behind the interim agreement that we started 3-4 years ago and we start to talk about the most important issues that are in conflict between us and the Palestinians," said Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon.

Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.

Israel: Explosions won't derail renewed peace process
September 5, 1999
Israelis, Palestinians break deadlock on Wye River accord
September 4, 1999

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