Hebron deal ends months of wrangling

West Bank breakthrough: As Israel agrees to quit disputed city, Palestinians prepare fresh demands

After months of nit-picking negotiation, false optimism and premature predictions, Israel and the Palestinians finally agreed yesterday on the terms of Israel's redeployment in Hebron, the last West Bank town under occupation.

David Bar-Illan, a senior adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said last night: "The agreement is practically finalised. We expect a meeting between the two leaders within 24 hours to tie up any loose ends."

The United States Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, who is acting as a mediator, was less confident of an immediate summit between Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. "We're still working and I think there is a genuine desire to reach an agreement. So we are going to keep working and I hope we can reach it soon," he said last night after meeting Mr Arafat in Gaza. He had earlier met Mr Netanyahu.

The two leaders will initial the deal, which will then be submitted later this week to the Israeli cabinet, where Mr Netanyahu faces the threat of a revolt by at least one-third of the 18 right-wing and religious ministers. As a sop to coalition backbenchers, the Prime Minister will also present the agreement to the Knesset for debate.

The Israeli troops may redeploy, however, immediately after the cabinet has endorsed the terms, which do not have to be ratified by parliament.

Mr Netanyahu's majority is not at risk. Labour and the left-wing Meretz opposition parties, the fathers of the Oslo breakthrough, have announced that they will vote for the Hebron accord.

The expected abstentions, or hostile voting, by his own colleagues in the Likud party will, however, dent Mr Netanyahu's authority. No prime minister relishes being beholden to the opposition for important policy decisions.

Two senior Likud ministers - the former general Ariel Sharon and Benny Begin, son of the Likud party's founder, Menachem Begin - have come out against the deal. So has Rafael Eitan, a former chief of staff, who ran on a joint list with Likud in last May's elections. Four ministers and 14 dissenting coalition backbenchers stayed away when a maverick right- wing no-confidence motion on the Hebron talks was put to a vote on Monday.

Mr Begin, the Minister of Science, last night explained to The Independent his opposition: "Any areas relinquished to the PLO immediately become safe havens for terrorists. Arafat has violated numerous major articles of the Oslo agreement. I don't want further experiments that hand over our security to PLO terrorist sub-contractors."

The new Hebron agreement sticks to the basic pattern of the deal negotiated by Shimon Peres's Labour administration a year ago. Mr Netanyahu claimed, to scepticism on both sides of the Knesset this week, that he had succeeded in strengthening security provisions for the town's 450 Jewish settlers in 10 particulars.

Israeli troops will evacuate 80-85 per cent of the disputed holy city, traditionally seen as the burial place of Abraham, the common ancestor of Jews and Arabs. They will stay in the remaining 15-20 per cent to protect the settlers. All but 15,000 of the 150,000 Arab residents will come under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority and the protection of the Palestinian police.

The agreement provides for a buffer zone around the Jewish quarter, where Palestinian police will be limited to short-range automatic weapons. The height of new Palestinian building around the enclaves will be restricted to prevent sniping. The Arab town council will not have any control over building inside the Jewish areas.

Israeli and Palestinian forces will mount joint patrols. Israel also reserves the right to conduct hot-pursuit and pre- emptive raids inside the Palestinian areas. However, officials admit that similar provisions in other evacuated towns have not been implemented. They are unlikely to be invoked in Hebron either. The key to success will be the degree of trust between the security services.

Last night, Israeli officials were predicting a compromise on the Palestinians' last-minute demand for a role in the security around the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine that is sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

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