Carrying out the next step in revived peace talks with the Palestinians, Israel relinquished control over civilian matters today in an additional 146 square miles of West Bank territory, including this hilltop village near Jericho.
The turnover was more symbolic than substantial. In Deir Dibwan and the rest of a patchwork of areas turned over, Israeli soldiers and police retained control of security, and Palestinian officials were limited to such matters as local ordinances. Still, the step was seen as important evidence of Israel's renewed commitment to fulfill its pledges, increasing chances of success for talks on a final peace settlement due to begin Monday.
The shift in civilian authority--moving pieces of territory from full Israeli control to shared control--marked another step in the long-delayed application of an agreement reached at the Wye River Plantation near Washington last October after prolonged mediation by President Clinton and his aides.
Implementation of the Wye agreement--itself a reiteration of earlier accords--was suspended almost immediately by Israel's prime minister at the time, Binyamin Netanyahu. But Ehud Barak, the prime minister since May, promised to renew implementation of the accord and move quickly into long-dormant, broader talks aimed at resolving all disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.
After weeks of negotiations that modified the Wye accord again, Israel and the Palestinians signed a new document early Sunday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh. The renewed agreement, brokered by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, outlined how the Wye accord is to be carried out.
Before advancing to the larger negotiations, Palestinians wanted to see Israel carry out the two most important steps in the Wye accord. Israel complied Thursday by beginning the release of 350 Palestinians held on charges of security offenses, and now it has begun the turnover of civilian authority in some West Bank areas occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.
In all, an additional 11 percent of West Bank territory will go to full or partial Palestinian control, ultimately giving Palestinians full or shared control of 40 percent of the West Bank. Today's installment was 7 percent.
Khalil Hassan, 65, and his son Munir, two shepherds on this hilltop six miles west of Jericho, said their lives are unlikely to change much no matter who is in charge of collecting local taxes or settling civil disputes.
They agreed with others in areas changing to Palestinian control that it is better to be governed by fellow Palestinians. But when it comes down to how people live, the change, they said, does not mean much.
"The Israelis don't care about us, except to control us and take our land," said Munir Hassan. "But those Palestinians who are in charge don't care either, they want our money."
Overcrowding in some West Bank villages might be relieved because, under Palestinian civilian control, building permits for nearby land should be easier to obtain. But for the elder Hassan, this was not as important as the amount of control Israel retains over his life and the need to get his sheep to pastures near Jericho every year.
"Their army still controls the land we have to cross, and every time they block us," Khalil Hassan said.
Deir Dibwan is on top of the tall hill where the Hassan family grazes 200 sheep, although there are more rocks than blades of grass in the dry, reddish brown soil. Most villages in this region are already under Palestinian civilian control. Israeli officials said the bits of territory turned over today are mostly like this, where no Jews and few Palestinians live.