Rifkind urges Israel to reduce Hebron presence

Whoever hurled the large stone that smashed the front window of the press bus accompanying Malcolm Rifkind was probably unaware that the British Foreign Secretary was in Hebron. But he did succeed in underlining the restiveness of the 100,000 Palestinians in the city as they wait for the long-delayed agreement on Israeli redeployment.

Mr Rifkind, the senior European politician to visit Hebron, told Mustafa Natshe, the mayor, that Britain was committed to "the self-determination of the Palestinian people" and that "all [Israeli] settlements are illegal". Israeli withdrawal was necessary for the peace process to retain credibility.

Mr Rifkind's visit is part of increased diplomatic pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, since a day of fighting in September left 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis dead. Mr Rifkind said Mr Netanyahu had assured him Israel would implement other parts of the interim deal with the Palestinians signed last year, in addition to that relating to Hebron.

Palestinians want to force Israel to transfer three more instalments of territory, as previously agreed. That would make it more difficult for Israel to isolate the small enclaves which the Palestinians already rule.

Mr Rifkind's visit, while less combative than that last month by President Jacques Chirac of France, emphasises Mr Netanyahu's diplomatic isolation. In Hebron he said "the option of a Palestinian state must be available". He then left for Gaza, where he was due to meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

Mr Netanyahu has accused Mr Arafat of delaying agreement on Hebron in the hope of greater American pressure on Israel after the presidential election.

In addition to Israel withdrawing from most of Hebron, Palestinians want agreements implemented to release prisoners and open a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. The deal on Hebron may be signed at the Middle East economic summit in Cairo on 12 November.

It is feared Israeli settlers in Hebron will attack Palestinians to sabotage the agreement. Near Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement overlooking the city, settlers yesterday threw petrol bombs at a Palestinian house, setting it ablaze and injuring five people, one critically, family members said.