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Israeli Pullback On Schedule

Despite last-minute glitches, Israel withdrew troops from parts of the northern West Bank today, fulfilling the first step of the new Mideast peace accord and moving the Palestinians a step closer to statehood.

The withdrawal was already well underway when Palestinians raised questions about changes Israel made in the redeployment map. The pullback was put on hold and only resumed two hours later, after a meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli troop commander in the West Bank.

The pullback gives Arafat full or partial control of an additional 9.1 percent of the West Bank, a 204-square-mile chunk of land the size of Chicago. The withdrawal also takes Arafat a step closer to his final goal: statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, faces a mounting challenge by hawkish allies who oppose land concessions and are threatening to topple the government. Netanyahu reportedly is considering calling early elections.

"We signed the agreement with a heavy heart, and with a heavy heart we proceed to implement it," Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai wrote Friday in the daily Yediot Ahronot.

Israel also released 250 Palestinian prisoners, including 150 criminals. This sparked complaints from the Palestinians, who had demanded all those freed be prisoners jailed for activities against Israeli occupation.

"It's a shame and a defeat for the Palestinian people," said Hisham Abdel Razek, a senior Palestinian Authority official in charge of prisoner affairs. Abdel Razek stayed home instead of greeting returnees arriving by bus at the Nahal Oz crossing between Israel and Gaza.

Mahmoud Obeid, a TV cameraman, was filming the arrivals when he recognized one of the prisoners as his brother Ahmed, whom he had last seen 11 years ago. Obeid dropped his camera, ran to his brother and hugged and kissed him.

Israel and the Palestinians also signed a protocol for the operation of the Palestinian international airport in Gaza. Arafat said the airport would open Tuesday with a flight from Cairo carrying Egyptian government officials, the Palestinian news agency Wafa said.

The Israeli redeployment began this morning.

Israeli army trucks loaded with 130 red-and-yellow border markers left the Dotan army base south of the Palestinian town of Jenin and drove to road junctions to demarcate the new borders between Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled areas.

On the outskirts of Silt al-Harthiye village near Jenin, a crane lifted a border stone the size of a washing machine from a truck.

Nearby, Israeli and Palestinian officers pored over a map spread on the hood of a white Palestinian jeep to make sure the marker was being placed in exactly the right spot. A Hebrew-Arabic interpreter translated between the two sides.

At the end of the withdrawal, an additional 36 smaller towns and villages had come under full Palestinian control, said Palestiian police commander Brig. Gen. Ismail Jaber.

The Palestinian Authority already has full control over the seven West Bank cities and has joint jurisdiction with Israel in about 400 villages.

In Qabatieh, a town of 17,000, Palestinian police made a triumphant entrance this afternoon. A convoy of more than a dozen police cars drove through the main street and officers shot their Kalashnikov assault rifles in the air.

Thousands watched the arrival, but despite the momentary festiveness, many remained skeptical. "Outside of town, there are still Israeli checkpoints. So what will change?" said Khalil Abu Rub, a 55-year-old merchant sitting in a nearby coffee shop.

To Jewish settlers in the area, the pullback meant new anxiety, and some were toying with the idea of returning to Israel.

"If life becomes intolerable and dangerous, and there is even a chance that a child will be killed or injured, I think we should seriously consider leaving, provided the government will compensate us," said Ovadia Yaacov, 48, a retired army officer and father of three who lives in the Ganim settlement, now surrounded on three sides by Palestinian-controlled areas.

In the troop pullback, two percent of the West Bank, 44 square miles, was transferred from sole Israeli control to joint jurisdiction. In addition, 7.1 percent of the land, or 160 square miles, moved from joint jurisdiction to sole Palestinian control.

Today's withdrawal marks the first stage of a three-phase pullback that is to be completed by the end of January. By then, Arafat will have full or partial control of 40 percent of the West Bank, about the size of New York's five boroughs.

While a vast majority of Israelis favor the withdrawal, with polls consistently showing more than 70 percent approval, Netanyahu had difficulties keeping his hard-line allies on board.

"Today is one of the worst days, as far as I'm concerned, in the inspiring history of Zionism," Jewish settler leader Aharon Domb, a former Netanyahu supporter, wrote in Yediot.

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