The Palestinians on Sunday rejected Israel's decision to pull troops out of 9 percent of the West Bank, provoking a new crisis that Israel's foreign minister suggested could delay the planned withdrawal.
"We totally rejected their percentage," Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Dahlan said after a tense three-hour meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and other officials in Jerusalem at which the details of the 9 percent pullout were to be arranged."We informed them that this was not acceptable."
Earlier, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai had said the army would pull out of dozens of West Bank villages, with a combined population of tens of thousands, within days, in accordance with a Cabinet decision Friday.
That decision - which was criticized by Israeli hard-liners as being too generous - is intended as the first of three "further redeployments" in the West Bank called for in the Israel-PLO accords. The Palestinians had expected to gain control of 20 percent of the area in the first phase.
Levy pointed out that the accords allow Israel alone to decide on the scope of the three pullouts, adding that the ball was now in the Palestinians' court.
"They . . . are going back to (Yasser Arafat) and will have to discuss it among themselves and give us an answer," he said. "The government made a decision, it prepared for implementation, and if they (the Palestinians) don't accept it then they are causing delays."
Israel TV reported that Arafat was considering accepting control over the 9 percent of land, without recognizing it as the required pullout.
While Arafat's criticism of the Israeli Cabinet decision as soon as he learned of it Friday was predictable, his outright rejection of the plan took Israeli officials by surprise, and created an atmosphere of crisis. Not only is the Cabinet unlikely to agree to increase the 9 percent figure, but it opposes in principle the idea that Palestinians have veto power over the size of the troop withdrawals.
Palestinians now have full control over eight cities - 2.8 percent of the West Bank - and partial control over more than 500 villages - about 24 percent. They also control most of the Gaza Strip.
Under the plan narrowly approved by the Cabinet on Friday, 7 percent of the West Bank will be transferred from joint Israeli-Palestinian to full Palestinian control, while 2 percent now under Israeli occupation will come under joint control.
The redeployment, supposed to have taken place by last Friday, will reportedly give Arafat's Palestinian Authority full control of 50 more West Bank villages with a population of about 200,000.
Despite Israeli statements to the contrary, Palestinians have said they expect to be in control of most of the West Bank at the end of the three redeployments and had hoped to gain control of a third of the territory in the first pullback.
"We do not want our homeland to be cantons which the Israelis control," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top aide to Arafat.
Palestinian anger was compounded by Israel's decision last week to go ahead with construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in disputed east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish a capital.
Palestinian minister Faisal Husseini said Sunday that the peace process was "on its way to the grave" because of the "Israeli insistence on doing what they want without taking their Palestinian partner into consideration."
Another minister, Hanan Ashrawi, called the planned pullout a "big fraud."