Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli troops began withdrawing from a further five percent of the disputed West Bank on Wednesday after Israeli and Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiators finally reached agreement over which areas would be ceded.
In another concession, Israel also released another 20 Palestinian prisoners to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Initially scheduled for November 15th, the pullback was delayed when the PA refused to sign maps drawn up by Israel indicating the areas it was prepared to relinquish.
PA negotiator Saeb Erekat told CNSNews.com earlier that the PA had refused to sign the map as a matter of principle. Israel has maintained it has sole authority to decide which territory it will hand to the PA, but the PA wants to be involved in the decision-making process.
Both sides insisted there had been no changes to the maps. Nonetheless, Erekat said the agreement was "satisfactory" to both sides.
Erekat told Israel Radio on Tuesday: "I think by the end of the day we've reached an understanding that is satisfactory to both sides in which the five-percent map will be signed tonight and implemented as they agreed within the next 48 hours."
The sides agreed further that Israel would transfer an additional 6.1 percent of the disputed territory by January 20th. According to press reports, Israel will this time allow the PA a say in the drafting of a map for the redeployment.
"We've been asking to be partners with Israel," Erekat said. "I think the deal, the understanding that was reached today [on both withdrawals] ... is satisfactory to both sides."
The Israel Defense Forces spokesman told CNSNews.com that Israel had pulled out of six military bases. Israel also surrendered civilian control, but not overall security responsibility, of a nature reserve east of the PA-controlled city of Hebron.
No Israelis live in any of the areas transferred by agreement on Wednesday.
In a series of agreements since 1994, Israel agreed to phased pullbacks from areas of the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip, considered by most Jews to be the Biblical heartland of Israel.
First to go was Gaza, except for a few small Jewish communities, and the ancient town of Jericho.
In 1995, the PA was given wide-ranging authority over six cities - Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Kalkilya, Ramallah and Bethlehem - as well as 450 towns and villages.
And, in 1997, the PA gained control over most of Hebron, completing a move to put most of the Arab population of the areas captured by Israel in 1967 under PA control.
The Wye River Memorandum in 1998 then committed Israel to a further transfer of another 27.2 percent of the West Bank in stages, but the agreement broke down over mutual accusations of non-compliance.
After his election in May 1999, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reiterated Israel's commitments in the Sharm el-Sheikh memorandum signed in Egypt last September.
Since then, Israel has released 350 security prisoners in addition to three goodwill releases during Ramadan; opened a "safe passage" route enabling Palestinians to travel between PA-ruled areas, through Israeli territory; and agreed to the opening of a seaport currently under construction.
For its part, the PA undertook to fulfill a number of security-related commitments including the collection of illegal weapons and the apprehension of security suspects.
The two sides also sought a framework for final status talks by February 15th and to wrap up a permanent agreement by this coming September.
That agreement is supposed to incorporate solutions to the remaining major issues of contention between the two sides - the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, water sharing and final borders.