A deal on Hebron now seems unlikely before the US elections next week. Disagreement centres on what Israel insists are additional security measures for the 400 Jewish settlers in the city but which Palestinians see as an attempt to renegotiate last year's agreement that would give autonomy to most of the 100,000 Palestinians in Hebron.
"The progress we have made clearly demonstrates that an agreement on Hebron redeployment is possible in the very near future," Dennis Ross, the American Middle East peace envoy, said in a statement admitting failure and announcing his return to the United States. Israel said Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was delaying a deal. "He believes that Washington is soft on Israel because of the elections," said David Bar-Ilan, spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel.
As a deal on Hebron approaches, Israeli settlers in and around the town are becoming more violent. An 11-year-old child, Hilmeh Salim Shushah, from a village near Bethlehem, was allegedly beaten to death by the head of security of the nearby Israeli settlement of Betar, who accused him of throwing stones. A Palestinian witness said: "The settler came close to the boys and then started beating Hilmi with the butt of his rifle. He hit him four blows to the head and Hilmi collapsed." The settler was under arrest yesterday.
There are four main obstacles to a deal on Israeli withdrawal from 80 per cent of Hebron, according to Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian security on the West Bank. These are: Israel's demand for the right of its forces to enter autonomous enclaves to arrest Palestinian suspects; a ban on Palestinian police carrying rifles near settler enclaves; the continued closure of a main Palestinian street; and no joint Palestinian- Israeli patrols in the Israeli-held part of Hebron.
In the aftermath of the violence of 25 September, in which 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed, Israel has come under pressure from Arab states, the US and Europe to continue the peace process. Mr Arafat, who left yesterday for Europe, may want to capitalise on this to get Mr Netanyahu to fulfil other parts of the Oslo accord. Israel is pledged to release prisoners, redeploy from other parts of the West Bank and open up a free passage between Gaza and the West Bank.
As Mr Arafat departed, EU foreign ministers last night agreed on the appointment of a special envoy. Miguel Angel Moratinos, the current Spanish ambassador to Israel, was named as envoy with a mandate to strengthen the EU's role in the troubled peace process by observing the talks, making contacts with the parties on the ground and ensuring that economic aid gets through to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
EU officials insisted there was no desire to gain a seat at the negotiating table but Herve de Charette, French Foreign Minister, said Europe's aim should be to become co-sponsor of the peace process. Mr de Charette said the appointment of an envoy was something which Jacques Chirac, the French President, had insisted on. Yesterday's decision was a "great victory for the European Union but also for French diplomacy," he said.Reuse content