Israel OKs West Bank Pullout

Israel's cabinet removed the final obstacle to a West Bank troop withdrawal Thursday by giving the go-ahead to the first stage of the new Mideast peace agreement, according to Israel radio.

It was the first time in nearly two years that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line government handed over territory to Palestinian control. Approval came after a series of delays and disputes with the Palestinians that put the pullback five days behind the original schedule.

Seven of 17 ministers voted in favor, five against, and three abstained, the radio said.

The pullback is expected to be completed by Friday, five days behind the original schedule laid out in the Wye River Memorandum inked last month under President Clinton's tutelage.

Israeli and Palestinian commanders met Wednesday night to complete preparations for the troop pullout. Israeli media reports said the United States is to give Israel $1.2 billion to cover the cost of the pullback. The grant, which would be in addition to the $3 billion in military and economic aid Israel receives from the United States every year, requires congressional approval, the reports said.

In the first stage of the pullback, 2 percent of the West Bank, or 44 square miles, will be transferred from sole Israeli control to joint jurisdiction with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. In addition, 7.1 percent of the land, 160 square miles, will be moved from joint jurisdiction to sole Palestinian control.

No army bases or Jewish settlements will be dismantled. Instead, Israeli troops will move black-and-yellow road markers the size of washing machines to demarcate the new lines of division.

The government has set aside $45 million for reinforcing 18 settlements. At the Psagot settlement near the Palestinian town of Ramallah, troops fortified the perimeter with cement trenches Thursday.

The first pullback will leave two Jewish settlements, Ganim and Kadim, east of the Palestinian town of Jenin, surrounded on three sides by Palestinian-controlled areas.

One settler said that isolation will prompt some Israelis to move.

Avner Sinwani said he would leave Ganim, a settlement of 51 families, if the community turned into a fortified enclave with watch towers and barbed wire. "If we have to stay inside a fortress, I don't think anyone will want to stay and raise children here," Sinwani told Israel radio.

Also, the Israeli Prisons Authority said Israel will release 250 Palestinian prisoners on Friday as part of its commitments under its new peace deal with the Palestinians.

A spokeswoman said a mix of common criminals and political detainees who would be freed under an agreement reached with Palestinians, who had insisted that all 250 should be political detainees. The main Palestinian negotiator on the issue, Hisham Abdel-Razek, said no agreement had been struck.

"The United States is asked to intervene in order to guarante the implementation of the agreements," Hisham Abdel-Razek, minister of state for prisoners affairs, told a news conference in Gaza.

Abdel-Razik accused Israel of using the issue of prisoners as a "card of pressure" on the Palestinian Authority. He warned Israel that if it continued its "maneuvers" over the issue of prisoners it could lead Palestinians to violence.

The Palestinians met three obligations under the peace accord before the cabinet vote. They published a decree against incitement and a decree regarding illegal weapons, and they provided a list of 10 Palestinian fugitives to be jailed by Thursday.

Israel's army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told the cabinet that the Palestinians already had arrested more fugitives than required, Israel radio reported.

In a possible new dispute, Israel has accelerated the legal process of turning about 10 percent of the West Bank, or 125,000 acres, into state lands that could be used for settlement expansion, the Ma'ariv daily and Israel radio said. The land at issue is not privately owned by Palestinians and is not farmed.

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