Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sign peace-agreement

EREZ CROSSING, Israel (AP) — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators signed a long-awaited agreement on Israel’s long-delayed pullout from Hebron and parts of the West Bank on Wednesday, ending a dangerous impasse in Middle East peacemaking.
The signing followed an early morning summit between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at an Israel-Gaza border crossing. Their chief negotiators — Dan Shomron and Saeb Erekat — signed the final accord, Netanyahu spokesman Dan Shomron said.
The agreement lays out “a pathway of greater hope and possibility for peace in the Middle East as a whole,” said U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, who pushed for the accord in four months of tortuous negotiations.
Authorities did not immediately release details of the accord. But according to reports and information provided by officials previously, Israel is to give the Palestinians control of 80 percent of the Biblical city of Hebron within days. Israel has furthermore committed to roll back its presence in the West Bank in three stages — beginning in six weeks and ending in August 1998.
It is first concrete step in the peace process since Netanyahu’s hard-line government took office in June, pledging to slow down the handover of land to the Palestinians. Tensions between the two sides have risen sharply as the stalemate in their relations lengthened. In September, Palestinian frustration sparked clashes with Israel in which 79 people died.
But Wednesday’s agreement sets the stage for future conflict by leaving as many questions as it answers — most notably the scope of the planned Israeli withdrawals. The Palestinians hope to gain control of most of the West Bank, but Netanyahu by some reports plans to cede as little as one-third of the territory, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
Netanyahu spokesman Shai Bazak said Netanyahu would take the deal later Wednesday to his Cabinet — where about half the ministers have said they are against it or undecided. Arafat is expected to encounter less opposition when he brings the accord before his own Cabinet.
The accord is also to be brought to the Israeli Knesset, where it is expected to pass by a largest majority with the support of the opposition.
Netanyahu’s most ardent past supporters — the Jewish settlers of the West Bank and Gaza — were astounded by his decision to commit to pulling out of not only Hebron but parts of the West Bank as well.
“Netanyahu is on the verge of making a pact with the devil,” David Wilder, a spokesman for the 500 Jewish settlers who live amid 130,000 Palestinians in Hebron, said Tuesday.
“If he goes through with this, he will place all of our lives in severe jeopardy.”
Settler leaders met Tuesday night in Jerusalem to map a protest campaign against the government they helped bring to power.
“This agreement is going to tear the nation into pieces,” said Elyakim Haetzni, a settler leader from the Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron. “Netanyahu has cheated us.”
Palestinians, meanwhile, started preparations for the Israeli pullout. Merchants painted over political graffiti on storefront shutters in the downtown Bab Izawiya area, covering iron shutters with an Islamic green. Bab Izawiya was the scene of frequent past clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.