Both sides reported significant progress at the peace talks in Cairo between Palestinians and Israelis, which broke up on 23 February. The Cairo talks have been finalising security arrangements for when the Israeli troops begin their withdrawal from the self-rule area. Economic talks begin in Paris on 21 February (see Gaza/West Bank).

The PLO’s chief negotiator, Nabil Shaath, said it would only take a further two or three weeks before an agreement could be signed. Echoing comments by Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a day earlier, Shaath said the two sides had reached agreement on the deployment and positioning of the Palestinian police force that will keep order after the Israeli withdrawal. ‘We agreed on a large part of the security arrangements along the roads and on the border. The form of the Israeli withdrawal has become clear to us,’ Shaath said.

One of the more contentious issues at the security talks, the size of the Palestinian police force, seemed closer to being resolved after comments by Rabin on 23 February at a news conference in Lisbon. Rabin said he was prepared to accept a force of about 8,000 people in the autonomous area, which could be increased as Palestinian self-rule extended to other areas of the West Bank. He also said the force would be equipped with fishery patrol vessels and one or two helicopters.

Previously, Israel has said it would allow a Palestinian force no larger than 6,000 people, arguing against Palestinian demands for a force of around 10,000-strong. Shaath said final agreement on the size of the force would have to be reached between Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Other security issues which will have to be resolved at the next round of Cairo talks scheduled to begin on 28 February include safe passages between Gaza and Jericho and the release of up to 9,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Israel has given conflicting signals as to whether the 13 April deadline for troop withdrawal can still be met. Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres said on 23 February that the withdrawal could take up to a month longer than planned. However, Rabin said on Spanish radio on 22 February that a withdrawal could be completed in as little as two weeks.