PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed an agreement on 4 May that will give Palestinians self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. The signing ceremony took place in Cairo, overcoming a last-minute hitch after Arafat refused to put his signature to a map of Jericho. The size of the Jericho area has proved a stumbling block throughout the eight months of negotiations.

‘The whole world has witnessed the tip of the iceberg of the problems we will have to overcome in implementing even the first phase,’ Rabin said after signing the 200-page document. Arafat told the audience of 2,000: ‘I am convinced the people of Palestine will welcome this new era. Co-existence is possible.’

The ceremony, hosted by Egypt’s President Mubarak, was attended by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, the co-sponsors of the peace talks.

Under the agreement, Israel will pull out most of its troops from Gaza and Jericho within 21 days. PLO negotiator Nabil Shaath said 22 of the planned 9,000-strong Palestinian police force will move immediately to replace the army as it withdraws. A further 1,000 will follow shortly, he said. Rabin says Israeli troops could withdraw in as little as 10 days, but says the PLO may need four more weeks before its administrators are ready to take over all the reins of authority.

The self-rule administration, the Palestine National Authority (PNA), will now take control of most aspects of life in Gaza and Jericho, excluding external security and foreign affairs. The PLO reached an economic agreement with Israel on 29 April in Paris.

Arafat is expected to move to Jericho, as head of the PNA, in June. According to the declaration of principles, the self-governing authority is due to hold elections on 13 June. Palestinians say the delays in implementing the accord will put back the election date to 15 October.

In Gaza and the West Bank, the final agreement was not received with the same celebration that greeted the Washington signing of the declaration of principles. Few Palestinian leaders from the occupied territories were present at the Cairo signing. Analysts say this reflects the rift between them and the PLO leadership in Tunis, which is likely to become more evident in the months ahead.

Palestinians in the occupied territories are waiting to receive some of the benefits of the agreement. This includes the release of 1,000 Palestinian detainees from Israeli jails which was due to take place immediately after the signing ceremony. They will be the first of 5,000 prisoners to be released.

The US has been working hard to reactivate the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process. US President Clinton says he has received positive indications of progress from both leaders, but there has been no firm evidence of progress. The official daily Al-Thawra in Damascus on 4 May rejected the Palestinian-Israeli accord for limited withdrawal from the occupied territories. Following the government’s line since September, the paper said ‘such separate and partial solutions would put obstacles in the way of a just and comprehensive peace’.