ISRAEL and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) resumed their long-stalled peace negotiations in Cairo yesterday, racing against time to launch their autonomy agreement by the middle of April.
The talks restarted after the two sides agreed to deploy an armed foreign presence in Hebron to protect Palestinians in that West Bank town in the wake of the Feb. 25 massacre, when at least 29 Palestinian worshipers were killed by a Jewish settler.
The force, comprised of 90 Norwegians, 35 Danes, and 35 Italians, authorized to carry handguns, is expected to arrive next week. Although the PLO gave up its demand for a Palestinian police force in Hebron, it won Israeli agreement to the early deployment of Palestinian officers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho, the areas slated for limited autonomy.
Those policemen, the vanguard of a force 8,000 strong, are due to begin moving in next Tuesday, but they will have no authority until the autonomy agreement is signed.
ISRAEL and the PLO agreed to speed up their talks in a bid to meet the April 13 deadline for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho set in their Declaration of Principles, signed in Washington Sept. 13.
The Israeli Army has been quietly removing equipment from Gaza for some time, and PLO officials there say Israeli officers have told them they could move out within 72 hours of receiving orders to do so.
Israel's acceptance of an international armed presence in Hebron - whose mandate will initially run for three months - marks a major departure from the Jewish state's traditional insistence on being the sole responsible authority in the occupied territories.
Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, called the deal ``a victory and an achievement for Palestinian diplomacy.
``This presence demonstrates that the next phase will be that of full Palestinian sovereignty,'' he added.
That prospect prompted fierce denunciation of the agreement on Hebron by right wing Israelis. Opposition Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu called it a ``seminal mistake,'' which ``heavily prejudices the final outcome in favor of Palestinian sovereignty.''