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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mideast Accord Signed After Last-Minute Snag

CAIRO -- Israel and the PLO, overcoming an embarrassing last-minute snag, signed a landmark accord on Wednesday giving Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip their first taste of self-rule since the 1967 Middle East war. Egypt provided the stage, complete with plastic sphinx and pyramids, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat provided the drama in a ceremony televised worldwide. Arafat refused to sign maps attached to the agreement and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin followed suit. Amid gasps and finger-pointing before a 2,500-strong audience, officials rushed into off-camera huddles to prevent disaster. After 35 agonizing minutes and U.S. assurances, Arafat, in tailored green fatigues and black and white headscarf, put his name to the document which he called a first step to ending Israeli occupation and the start of a new era between Arab and Jew. After reading Arafat's notes on the map, Rabin too signed the accord which he hopes will secure peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors for the first time since the Jewish state's creation in 1948. But in Damascus, both Syria and radical Palestinian groups blasted the accord as a false peace. The official daily al-Thawra said Syria rejected the accord, which provides for limited Palestinian autonomy and a partial Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho. It said Syria, which like Lebanon and Jordan is also engaged in peace talks with Israel, believes "such separate and partial solutions would put obstacles in the way of a just and comprehensive peace." PLO factions opposed to dealings with Israel joined with Islamic groups in condemning the agreement. Jordan, home to thousands of Palestinian refugees, showed little enthusiasm for the accord. In the occupied West Bank and Gaza thousands of Palestinians waited for Israel to free the first of as many as 5,000 prisoners. About 1,000 were expected to be released Wednesday as part of Israeli measures to help Arafat garner support for the accord. The 11th-hour drama was typical of the atmosphere of crisis and theater that has accompanied the talks In order to meet the signing deadline, the two sides had agreed during late-night negotiations to disagree on differences such as the size of the Jericho area to be given to the PLO. Arafat hailed the accord as "the start of an end to Israeli occupation and a chance to create new relationships." "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. "There is opposition on both sides to what we are doing today. It will require both sides to succeed in bringing about peaceful coexistence." The two leaders stood for more than two hours before a sky-blue backdrop worthy of Hollywood -- a giant polystyrene sphinx in front of three pyramids, flanked by maidens of ancient Egypt releasing doves. "Negotiations do work, peace is possible," U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said after the signing. Under the agreement Israel will pull most of its troops out of Gaza and Jericho within 21 days, its first withdrawal from the Palestinian lands it captured in 1967. PLO negotiator Nabil Shaath said the first 22 of 9,000 Palestinian policemen who will replace the army moved into Gaza after the signing. He said another 1,000 would follow shortly. Arafat is not expected to enter the autonomous areas until next month. He will manage most aspects of Palestinians' lives except external security and foreign relations. Negotiations on the final status of the whole West Bank and Gaza are to begin within two years.