Israelis and PLO 'talk about talks': Agreement on international protection for Palestinians and removal of Hebron settlers remain sticking points

ISRAELI officials arrived in Tunis last night to 'talk about talks' with the PLO. The Israelis promised to speed up implementation of the Gaza-Jericho accord by taking a more flexible position on outstanding issues if the two sides meet again soon.

The prospect of renewed peace talks, following Friday's United Nations resolution condemning the Hebron massacre, now depends on securing agreement over the nature of an 'international presence' to protect Palestinians and the removal of extremist settlers from Hebron.

The carrot of rapid Israeli withdrawal once negotiations resume will be a hard one for the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, to ignore. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have agreed to return to the negotiations next month, putting fresh pressure on the PLO to follow suit.

Mr Arafat is unlikely to risk an early return to talks, however, until the PLO is given further guarantees of protection for Palestinians living alongside settlers in the occupied territories.

The UN resolution called for an international presence to protect the Palestinians. Although the wording of the resolution was vague, the implication was clear: the Hebron massacre has shown that Israel is not fulfilling its obligations as an occupier to protect the local population, as it has always claimed.

The PLO is trying to capitalise on the resolution by securing support for an international force to be deployed in the occupied territories, ideally under UN auspices.

Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is keen to limit the powers and scope of any 'international presence', however. Mr Rabin is refusing any suggestion of an armed force, and seeking to ensure that the 'presence' - perhaps a team of up to 200 foreign monitors - carries only small arms for self-defence and is confined to limited areas. Britain and other European Union countries have offered to contribute people.

The debate about how to remove Israeli settlers from Hebron is gathering pace, as the PLO insists on this as a condition for returning to the talks.

The Israeli government is in a bind on this issue. Since the massacre a curfew has been imposed on the Arabs in the town, creating tension and stirring new resentment, as Jews continue to move unrestricted. The Israeli government knows it cannot maintain the curfew for ever - the Palestinian population is short of food and growing more restive by the day. But, as time goes by, the army sees more risks in lifting the curfew. Once Palestinians spill out on to the street new clashes between them and the settlers will be inevitable.

The case for removing the settlers is therefore growing. However, Mr Rabin remains unwilling to break his promise to the Israeli people, made at the time of the Oslo accords, that no settlers would be uprooted under the terms of the new peace agreement.

As a pragmatic measure, the curfew in Hebron has been eased on the periphery to try to defuse some of the tension. But the curfew remains strictly in force around the centre, near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where settlers and Palestinians live cheek by jowl.

If the settlers here are not soon removed, the result of the 'half-curfew' could be even more dangerous. Arabs are likely to move away from the centre, where the restrictions are strict, leaving the area around the Tomb of the Patriarchs to the settlers, who will have effectively created a Jewish no-go area.

(Photograph omitted)

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