A Paper Pact Meets a Cold Reality in West Bank


ON paper, at least, the latest pact between Israel and Palestinians leaders advances the trust between former enemies.

But in this usually bustling Palestinian commercial center, one of seven West Bank towns due to come under Palestinian self-rule, the scene yesterday was an eerie reminder of how far peace efforts still have to go.

Nablus was like a ghost town as Palestinian residents observed a strike to protest the deaths of three activists killed in clashes with Israeli security forces over the past week. The strike capped a week of civil unrest.

Groups of youths, gathering at burning barricades in the city center, were the only people seen in the quiet streets. Israeli soldiers manned checkpoints at the entrance of the city.

Self-rule arrives

But now peace is on Nablus's doorstep. Sunday's agreement provides for the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Nablus and five other West Bank towns. Palestinian police will become responsible for security in those six towns, and the town of Hebron will be dealt with separately - Israel remaining in control of the Jewish settlements and Palestinian police taking control of security for the rest of the town.

''We hope that peace will come now that an agreement has been signed,'' says Zakaria al-Daifa, visiting his restaurant in an otherwise deserted street in the usually crowded market area.

But most residents say they do not support the demonstrations held during the last week to demand the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have yet to work out the details of a phased release of about 5,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Said Kaanan, the acting director of the independent Center for Palestine Research and Studies, says that law and order will be restored when the Palestinian police arrive in the city in about two months. ''There is a security vacuum here, but I think it is a temporary situation,'' he says.

But the complexity of the security arrangements make it far more difficult to implement than the first phase of the autonomy accord that placed the Gaza Strip and Jericho under Palestinian self-rule in May 1994.

And the trust that has been built between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators has yet to filter down to a hopeful but skeptical public.

Doubting Israelis fear that the extension of autonomy to the West Bank could provide new havens for Islamic militants, who are opposed to the peace accord with Israel, to step up attacks against the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin acknowledged this worry in an interview with Israeli newspapers this weekend when he conceded that there were no guarantees that this could not happen. ''I hope [that this will not be the case], but I cannot say for sure,'' he said.

Doubting Palestinians fear that the partial withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the West Bank is merely a cosmetic ploy by the Israelis to meet international demands while shifting security control to the outskirts of the towns and cities.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tried to deal with these concerns when he said Sunday that the accord would succeed only if there was honest and detailed implementation. ''Any agreement, no matter how good it is, will not be successful unless there are good intentions.''

Supporters and opponents of the accord concede that the process begun 18 months ago has become irreversible. Even the right-wing Israeli Likud opposition would be hard-pressed to change the realities if it won Israeli elections scheduled to take place by November next year.

But it is in the ancient city of Hebron, where both Arabs and Jews claim the resting place of the Biblical patriarch Abraham as holy, that the accord is likely to face its toughest test.

Religious rights

Hebron has produced some of the most militant right-wing Jewish activists and Islamic extremists - including Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Muslims at prayer in February last year, and several Palestinian suicide bombers responsible for scores of Israeli deaths.

But militant Islamic movements are divided over how to react to the accord, with some seeing it as a tactical advantage and others wanting to pursue a more hard-line approach.

In Hebron, even Mr. Arafat's traditional supporters are unhappy with the accord.

''We reject any agreement which does not treat Hebron in the same way as other Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank,'' says Abdel Alim Dana, an economics lecturer at the Hebron Technical Training College, who spent 16 years in Israeli jails for resisting 28 years of Israeli occupation.

Mr. Dana was speaking just after nightfall in a crowded main street in Hebron, a bustling city of about 120,000 Palestinians and about 400 Jewish settlers, who maintain a symbolic downtown presence that they regard as vital to the future of the Jewish religion.

Under the accord, special arrangements for Hebron will allow Israeli soldiers to guard the tiny Jewish settlement and the roads linking it to the Cave of the Patriarchs - a holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews - and the larger Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of the city.

Hebron is the only West Bank city where Jewish settlers reside in the downtown area.

Palestinian police, part of a contingent of about 12,000 expected to take up position on the West Bank after Israeli soldiers withdraw, will be responsible for the security of the Arab residents in the town.

Full withdrawal promised

According to the agreement, Israeli soldiers will withdraw fully from Hebron within six months, the time it is expected to take Israel to complete a road that will bypass the city in a bid to reduce friction between Arabs and Jews.

Some Palestinians insist that there can be no elections until Israeli troops leave Hebron.

''We are not opposed to the Jews. We are against the occupation,'' Dana says. ''Once we have our political rights in our own state with Jerusalem as its capital, then we won't care whether the Jews come here or not.''

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