Settlers take a grim view of Hebron deal

In their headquarters in Hebron yesterday Israeli settlers were grimly listening to news of the accord agreed earlier in the day between Israel and the Palestinians as a result of which 80 per cent of the city will come under Palestinian control within the next 10 days.

Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet later accepted the Hebron deal with the Palestinians by a vote of 11-7. But Noam Arnon, a settler leader, complained: "American pressure was too great." He went on to explain how the Israeli prime minister had agreed to much the same accord on Hebron as he had previously denounced. "Netanyahu wrote a book that said there should be no surrender to terrorism, and now he signed an agreement with a terrorist group," said Mr Arnon, who leads the 500 Jewish settlers who live among 120,000 Palestinians in Hebron.

In the heavy rain outside the settler enclave Palestinians showed few signs of jubilation. The Israeli redeployment has yet to take place and they live in the part of the city which stays under Israeli control. "There may be a different mood when we take over the Israeli military headquarters," said a by-stander, pointing to an old British colonial fortress.

Early yesterday morning at the Erez crossing point between Gaza and Israel, after last-minute discussions between Mr Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, the protocol on Hebron was finally agreed after delays caused by Palestinian suicide bombers and by the Israeli election.

The accord says that by the end of next week Hebron will have 400 Palestinian police, armed with 100 rifles and 200 pistols. Close to settler enclaves the police will carry only pistols. Hills overlooking settlers' houses will be patrolled by a joint Israeli-Palestinian force. The Palestinian wholesale market and a main road will be reopened. A joint rapid reaction force will be established.

None of this differs much from the 1995 agreement. An Israeli demand for the right to pre-emptive entry into Palestinian areas has been dropped. Mr Arafat had made his biggest concessions when he agreed to the partition of the city more than a year ago.

The Hebron protocol was agreed more than a week ago and the point at issue was the three-stage Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. This is now to be finished by the middle of next year.

By yesterday afternoon the extent of the withdrawal was creating fresh divisions. The Palestinians insist that Israel must leave 90 per cent of the West Bank and deny that the Israeli government can claim 50 per cent as "military locations".

Some Israeli ministers reject the accord. Benjamin Begin, the Science Minister and son of a former prime minister, angrily told Israeli army radio: "The Prime Minister committed himself to give away sections of the Jewish homeland. He gets zero from Arafat." Mr Begin was said to have shouted at Mr Netanyahu during the decisive cabinet meeting.

The dispute over the protocol may force a realignment on the Israeli right, the hard core breaking with Mr Netanyahu for giving up part of the Land of Israel.

In addition to the agreement on Hebron, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat agreed on a three-page "Note for the Record" in which both sides get less than they would have liked. Palestinian demands such as safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank as well as construction of a Palestinian airport and port at Gaza will be discussed in future. It does not appear that there is any real change on the release of 3,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Israel had demanded the extradition of the Palestinians in autonomous areas who had killed Israelis, but Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said yesterday that they would, as before, be tried in Palestinian courts. Overall, the accord differs little from the interim accord signed by Labour.

"I'm a very happy man today," Yossi Beilin, the architect of the peace accords, said. "I would like to welcome Netanyahu to the Oslo club. The process is the only game in town."

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