'Gaza and Bethlehem first' deal in the works: Palestinians responsibility for security in the entire Gaza Strip and the city of Bethlehem
The Jerusalem Post

June 20, 2003

The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday that Palestinian and Israeli officials were close to reaching an agreement that would give Palestinians responsibility for security in the entire Gaza Strip and the city of Bethlehem on the West Bank.

The deal, whose final touches were dealt with by visitng US Secretary of State Colin Powell over the weekend, would more than quadruple the area of Israel's withdrawal as a first step in implementing the US backed "road map" to peace, reported the Times. The area initially under discussion focused only on Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, an area used by Palestinian terrorists to fire rockets at Israeli towns. The initial withdrawal offer did not include Bethlehem.

Palestinian officials said the deal would be the cornerstone of a wider peace package that includes a cease-fire by Palestinian militant groups and a halt by Israel of its targeted assassinations.

Israel says that the Palestinian Authority has the power necessary to bring the Gaza Strip under its security control, with over 20,000 security personnel at its disposal. Israel's Foreign Minister, however, said on Saturday that the Palestinians had not yet taken action to move forward on "the historic decision reached at the Aqaba summit".

According to the LA Times report the PA would be given a "grace period" of more than one week, during which Israel would not take military action in response to any renewed violence originating in the Gaza Strip, an Israeli diplomat said.

"The idea is to give them a chance," added the diplomat, while making it clear that the Palestinians must rapidly take on Hamas, and not hide behind the notion of a cease-fire. "If it's just temporary tricks to get us out of there, we will be back in after two or three weeks," he said.

"If Abbas' government can take control, there will be fundamental changes in the way Israel conducts military operations," added the Israeli diplomat.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made it clear to US Secretary of State Powell on his weekend visit that even during the "grace period", Israel would still act against "ticking bombs" - terrorists considered an immediate threat to Israelis. Sharon said that the Palestinians are refusing to take security responsibility, even though they have the forces necessary to take control of the situation on the ground in the Gaza Strip.

Israel is happy with Powell's statement calling Hamas "an enemy of peace", and his declaration that there was no difference between the terror organization's political and military leadership.

Sources close to Yasser Arafat said that the Palestinians were unhappy about Powell's anti-Hamas statements, and are generally dissapointed with the Secretary's visit to the region, Israel Radio reported.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas leader who survived an Israeli assassination attempt two weeks ago, responded angrily to Powell's comments, calling him a "big liar."

"This is a statement that reflects and proves that he is a little slave to the Zionists and to his master Sharon, that he is the real enemy of peace and justice in the world," he said.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, who spoke optimistically about the agreement, saying that in one week, discussions with the Israelis had moved from "limited Palestinian control of northeast Gaza to regaining control over the entire Gaza Strip, with its 1.3 million Palestinians, as well as Bethlehem". "It's no sham, no scam," Shaath said in an interview. "It's real."

US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who visited with the Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers Friday, said an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza "would be a very, very powerful and important first step if we can do that." After that, "the people of Gaza can see life return to the strip and their own authority in charge," which, he said, "would give them confidence that organizations such as Hamas and other terrorist organizations perhaps do not have the right answer."

According to the report, Israeli officials confirmed they have offered to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, but have insisted on maintaining control over two checkpoints on the main road [Salahuddin Road] to provide security for Israeli settlers.

Shaath said the Israeli government has proposed a bypass, which would destroy Palestinian homes, as one solution. Palestinians have countered by offering joint patrols, joint inspections, security coordination and camera surveillance.

"If this glitch is solved, we are in business," Shaath said.

Negotiations are set to resume Sunday, after the Jewish Sabbath.

According to officials in Washington, US National security adviser Condoleezza Rice will travel to the region next week to push the White House initiative.