Israeli negotiators left the Cairo peace talks on 6 April and the Palestinian team in doubt as to whether the mid-April deadline to implement self-rule in Gaza could still be met. When the talks ended, the two sides were still discussing the timing of the Israeli withdrawal and deployment of the Palestinian police force in the self-rule area. However, Israeli troops have continued to evacuate military bases in both Gaza and Jericho in preparation for the transfer of power.

The two sides returned to talks in Cairo at the beginning of April after negotiators signed an agreement for security arrangements in Hebron on 31 March. This provided for 160 lightly armed temporary international observers from Norway, Denmark and Italy. The PLO and Tel Aviv also agreed to accelerate the pace of the talks in an attempt to meet the timetable set out in the Washington declaration of principles, which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops by 13 April.

The PLO’s chief negotiator, Nabil Shaath, has said the two sides are close to agreement on a Palestinian police force numbering about 9,000. But the PLO has resisted Israeli proposals for a few commanders to go ahead of the rest of the force to assess the security requirements in the area.

The PLO want a more decisive transfer of power, which would allow for a new police force to move in only when the Israelis have set a date for withdrawal. Otherwise, the PLO argues, the Palestinian force will be seen to be collaborating with the occupiers, which would undermine its authority.

But the PLO is already facing practical problems affecting the deployment of the new force. So far only Norway and Greece have offered to provide equipment and uniforms, and the US has said it will provide vehicles. Shaath has appealed for more donors to come forward to provide adequate equipment so that the Palestinians can carry out proper law enforcement.

The new Palestinian recruits will face a daunting task in Gaza and Jericho, where there is little evidence of law and order. Extremists on both sides have been unrelenting in their attempts to stop the peace talks. On 6 April, a Palestinian suicide bomber, said to be a member of the Islamist group Hamas, killed more than eight Israelis and injured up to 50 when he drove a car filled with explosives into a bus in the northern Israeli town of Afula.