Israeli troops begin Hebron pull-out

Israeli troops began pulling out of Hebron last night after the Israeli parliament voted overwhelmingly to endorse the agreement under which most of the city will come under Palestinian control.

Jeeps filled with Palestinian police were waiting in heavy rain outside the Israeli military headquarters to take over as soon as the last Israeli soldiers left.

Israeli soldiers had earlier taken down the blue and white Star of David flag from the roof of the headquarters, an old British fortress, from which they had ruled Hebron since capturing it in 1967. Soon after the Knesset had voted by 87 to 17 to endorse the Hebron protocol, signed by Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday, the first of 400 Palestinian police started moving into the city.

For the Israeli right it is a day of mourning. With the approval of the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement which overlooks Hebron, the settlers in the centre of the city will ceremonially rend their clothes - usually only small slits are made - to mark their grief at the partial Israeli withdrawal.

In Jerusalem the cabinet approved the protocol on Hebron by a margin of 11 to 7 after a rancorous 12-hour debate in which Benjamin Begin, son of Menachim Begin, the former Prime Minister, resigned in protest, accusing Benjamin Netanyahu, the present Prime Minister, of ceding "the Jewish homeland". A demonstrator held up a placard reading: "You promised. We believed. You betrayed."

But about 67 per cent of Israelis said they were satisfied with the Hebron agreement signed on Wednesday, according to the daily Yediot Aharanot. Only 25 per cent were dissatisfied.

There is jubilation among the previous Labour government's supporters, defeated by Mr Netanyahu in last May's election, who see their policies justified. Shimon Peres, the former Prime Minister, said: "I truly congratulate the government on the signing of the protocol based on the Oslo agreement." Uri Savir, the former leader of Israel's negotiating team, said: "On most issues there are improvements - for the Palestinians."

This optimism may be misplaced. Mr Netanyahu has gone along with continuing to implement the Oslo accords largely because of pressure from Egypt and Jordan, the Europeans and, above all, the US. If the partial withdrawal from Hebron allows him to break out of diplomatic isolation he may repair his relations with the settlers by expanding settlements.

The US has played a much greater role in the recent talks than during negotiations on Oslo under Labour. Meiron Benvenisti, an expert on the West Bank, says: "The agreement is not an Israeli- Palestinian agreement, rather an Israeli-American and a Palestinian-American agreement."

The Prime Minister says his greatest achievement was to get an agreement that Israel will determine the extent of its withdrawal in the third phase of the pull-out from the West Bank.

But the Hebron protocol suffers from the same failing as the rest of the Oslo accord. Authority is handed to Palestinians, but settlers stay in place, ensuring endless friction between two groups of people who detest each other.