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Israel Gives Palestinians More Control, Wants Better Security


JERUSALEM — Israel turned over more civil authority to the Palestinians on Tuesday in West Bank ceremonies but continued to caution that the full transfer of authority may be slowed by security concerns.

As Israeli army officers formally relinquished control of social welfare programs and tourism to Palestinian officials in Ramallah and Bethlehem, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin toured military bases in the Gaza Strip.

But Rabin also visited the spot where a Palestinian follower of the militant Islamic Jihad movement on Friday pedaled an explosives-laden bicycle into an Israeli checkpoint on Gaza's main north-south highway, blowing himself up along with three Israeli reserve army officers.

"We expect a more serious effort from the Palestinian Authority than we have seen thus far," Rabin said. "Continued terrorism by extreme Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, if it continues, can put a question mark over the basis of the agreement between us."

Rabin toured the military sites hours before leaving for a visit to the United States, where he hopes to ensure the continuation of U.S. aid for Israel. Israeli officials have been alarmed by reports from Washington that the new Republican majority in Congress may move to slash Israel's $1.2 billion in annual civilian aid.

The prime minister angered residents at the Jewish settler community of Netzarim--an isolated outpost close to Gaza City--by refusing to enter the settlement, which he has labeled a burden on security forces. He talked to settlers outside the gates of their community.

But he also sent a message to the Palestinians, insisting that "the settlements will remain in place" during the five-year interim of limited Palestinian self-rule in the territories, before the final status of the West Bank and Gaza is determined. Several Israeli Cabinet ministers have, in recent days, said that both Netzarim and dozens of isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank will eventually have to be relocated away from Palestinian communities to ensure the settlers' safety.

But there appears to be unanimity among members of the left-leaning Cabinet that no such relocations should occur now. "That would be giving in to terrorism," said Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein.

Palestinians on Tuesday also celebrated their Independence Day--marking the day six years ago when the Palestine National Council, meeting in Algeria, declared an independent state of Palestine.

"What was once a dream has today become a reality. We are in our homeland," PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat told a rally of an estimated 7,000 people in Gaza City. In the West Bank, celebrations were mostly low-key, with schoolchildren marking the occasion by singing the Palestinian anthem and saluting the Palestinian flag.

Palestinians in the West Bank say that they have yet to see real benefits from the peace framework that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed more than a year ago. Palestinian self-rule exists in Gaza and in the West Bank town of Jericho, and Israeli soldiers have largely pulled out of those areas.

But the Israeli military presence in the West Bank remains a reality of daily life. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on Israeli redeployment out of much of the West Bank, and the hand-over of responsibility for security there to the Palestinians, are proceeding slowly.

Israeli officials worry that the Palestinian won't be able to ensure the safety of some 140,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

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