Israel in race to save peace

Backlash feared in Hebron after Jew shoots 8 Arabs
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The Independent Online
Israeli and Palestinian leaders were struggling yesterday to prevent the actions of a fanatical Jewish gunman from derailing an agreement to redeploy Israeli troops in the last West Bank city under occupation.

An off-duty Israeli soldier sprayed bullets at Palestinian shoppers in a market in the heart of Hebron yesterday in an attempt to sabotage the imminent handover of about 80 per cent of the city to Palestinian self-rule.

After a long day of diplomatic contacts, talks resumed last night at the home of the United States ambassador, Martin Indyk, near Tel Aviv. The two most senior negotiators, the Israeli Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, returned to the table.

David Bar-Illan, chief media adviser to Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Independent: "A meeting between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat is possible tonight or tomorrow." He cautioned, however, that there might be delays because of the shooting.

The American mediator Dennis Ross played a key role in bringing the sides together again. He spent the whole of yesterday afternoon in intensive consultations with Mr Arafat in Gaza.

Israeli security forces were on the alert last night after rumours spread from Gaza that the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad militias were planning revenge. Khalid Amayreh, a veteran Hebron Arab journalist, commented after the shooting, which wounded eight Palestinians: "Had there been a massacre, even Yasser Arafat would not have been able to prevent Hamas avenging the dead."

Mr Netanyahu reacted swiftly to control the damage, telephoning Mr Arafat to condemn the shooting as "a despicable crime". He reiterated his commitment to the speedy implementation of the Hebron redeployment. "No crime," he promised, "will stand in our way."

Saeb Erakat, a leading Palestinian negotiator, said Mr Netanyahu had to choose between the peace process and appeasing Jewish settlers.

"The Israeli government," Mr Erakat told The Independent, "must choose - either be partners with us in the peace process, or be partners with the extremists and the settlers. They can't have both. This shooting shows how important the peace process is."

In Hebron, the Arab mayor, Mustafa Natshe, urged restraint so that the agreement could be implemented, but complained that Mr Netanyahu talked only about the settlers' security. "He is forgetting the security of the Palestinians. They are left to the mercy of the settlers and the Israelis."

Shopkeepers in the market where Noam Friedman, a 19-year-old army conscript emptied his M-16 automatic rifle were less diplomatic. Ahmed Nasser said: "The settlers must be disarmed and moved out of Hebron. There will never be any security here as long as they can carry guns."

David Wilder, a spokesman for the 450 Hebron Jews, drew a contrary, apocalyptic conclusion. "When Arafat's people take over most of the city, thousands of Palestinians could descend on the Jewish quarter in minutes and overwhelm us," he said. "The only solution is to have the Israeli army remain the sole military authority in all of Hebron," he said.

The settlers' spokesman acknowledged, however, that Mr Netanyahu had passed a point of no return. Mr Mordechai, the Defence Minister, reaffirmed during an emergency visit to Hebron that the army was ready to pull out as soon as the politicians gave the order.

Under the agreement, Israel is to hand 80-85 per cent of the city to the Palestinian Authority. It will retain control over the Jewish enclave, where 40 families live in the midst of 150,000 Arabs. Up to 20,000 Palestinian residents will remain under Israeli rule.

The two immediate issues left for yesterday's projected negotiations were a Palestinian demand to share in security arrangements at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine sacred to Jews and Muslims, and the pace at which a main road running through the Jewish enclave would be reopened to Palestinian traffic.