Battle over Hebron could stall West Bank deal

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As Israeli and Palestinian leaders entered the final stages of negotiations about the future of Hebron yesterday a scene in the centre of the city explains why the Oslo accords are failing to bring peace.

Two Jewish settlers, both women, stood at the bottom of the steps leading from the Kurtuba girls' elementary school, screaming at the frightened- looking pupils as they left at the end of their lessons. As the girls, aged six to 12, came close the settlers spat repeatedly on the ground.

A soldier stood between the women and the children but made no effort to stop the settlers. He said: ``No journalists are allowed here. It is a closed military area.'' The only person to make a visual record of the intimidation of the children was a settler in a green T-shirt who carried a video camera.

A week ago Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, had telephoned the school to promise a steel door, protective wire and four guards - none of whom were in evidence. The settlers appeared to regard any Palestinian in the street, which has been sealed off to cars by the army, as fair game. When a Palestinian woman journalist passed by they shouted: ``Go away, you bitch.''

Mr Arafat himself was 200 miles south of Hebron, at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, in final talks with Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, about the second phase of the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank which hinges on Hebron. If agreement was not reached by 6am today the formal signature of the accord on the White House lawn on Thursday will have to be dropped.

Nobody in Hebron is very sanguine. ``We smell a sell-out,'' Khalid Amayreh, a local writer, said. ``Arafat is willing to sacrifice us in order to get a foothold in the West Bank. We want to know if the presence of the settlers is permanent or temporary. Is the occupation ending or is it being reorganised? Neither the Israeli or Palestinian authorities want to answer this question.''

Mr Peres submitted a plan for Hebron to Mr Arafat in Taba on Saturday night, but the Palestinians rejected it. A senior PLO official said: ``Redeployment would not start from the city and nearby villages until at least nine months after Israel paves bypass roads around the settlers' areas, carving up Hebron and illegally taking Palestinian land in the city centre.''

If Mr Arafat ultimately backs down over Hebron it will be a serious blow to his prestige. The Palestinian leader's strategy is becoming evident. He wants to get control of six West Bank towns and cities as soon as possible. Although this will give him only 5.5 per cent of the territory of the West Bank, he believes his real authority would be much greater.

Mr Arafat compares the situation to that in Lebanon during the civil war when the PLO at first held only a square kilometre of land but became the predominant force in West Beirut and south Lebanon. His critics say that the Israeli army and Shin Bet security service will be a lot more successful in hemming Mr Arafat into the six autonomous cities than the ragged militias the PLO faced down 20 years ago in Lebanon.

In Hebron Mr Amariyeh believes that if the 400 Israeli settlers, protected by 2,500 Israeli troops and police, stay in the city ``then there will probably be escalated violence against them''. Yesterday, stall-holders close to Kurtuba school were looking at a leaflet urging them to return next Saturday to the old city, half abandoned because of settler attacks and restrictions by the army. ``It is all too late,'' said one young man city as he read the flyer.

In Halhoul, a town near Hebron, Israeli security forces have arrested three Palestinians, who, dressed in Israeli army uniforms and speaking Hebrew, allegedly shot dead Salman Azamareh 10 days ago. Police claim one of the killers was a former policeman. Hussein Azamareh, the father of the dead man, said the murderers were all Palestinians who collaborated with Israel.