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Settlers vow to resist Hebron troop pull-out

Agreement on West Bank withdrawal likely at today's summit, writes Eric Silver in Jerusalem
Defiant Jewish settlers, angry at the prospect of a peace deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, plan to flood Hebron with thousands of sympathisers. They want to resist the redeployment of Israeli troops from the last West Bank Arab city still under occupation.

The new strategy was revealed yesterday as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued haggling over the smallprint of a Hebron deal, agreed in broad detail at a Christmas Eve summit between their respective leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat.

A spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister said last night that another summit was likely today at which they hoped to initial an agreement. "The talks," he added, "seem to be going well." The package is expected to include a timetable for further Israeli withdrawals from West Bank rural areas.

Forty Jewish families live among 150,000 Muslims in the centre of Hebron, the burial place of their common ancestor, Abraham. There is little to choose between their fundamentalist fanaticism. Roni Shaked, who covers the West Bank for the Tel Aviv daily, Yediot Aharonot, predicted this week that the new dividing line in the holy city would be "a wall of hatred". Any hopes of coexistence, he argued, were doomed. "The new reality is only going to widen the gaps between the two societies."

David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, told The Independent: "We are going to create a situation where there will be more than the present 450 Jews in Hebron. Our immediate aim is to prevent the redeployment. If that doesn't work, we will continue to build more buildings and to bring more people to live here."

Asked if they contemplated more violent resistance, Mr Wilder emphasised: "We have no plans to build a private army. We have no plans to go to war against the Israeli army. We have no plans to go to war against the Palestinian police. We do plan to go on living here."

As a foretaste, 20 settlers took over two empty houses in the Hebron casbah early yesterday. The casbah, adjacent to the Jewish enclave, is due to come under Palestinian rule. Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority intends to house 600 security prisoners there on their release from Israeli jails.

The Jewish squatters, who claimed they were preventing "terrorists" moving in, were evicted after scuffles with Israeli troops. Two Jews were charged with attacking soldiers.

Palestinian militants kept the pot boiling by tossing three petrol bombs at Israeli vehicles - an almost daily irritant during this week of accelerating diplomatic activity. Police arrested five Palestinians, three of them children. No casualties were reported.

Fierce opposition to the Hebron deal is crystallising within Mr Netanyahu's Likud and his partners in the ruling coalition of right-wing and religious parties. Two Likud ministers, Ariel Sharon and Benny Begin, have announced they will vote against it. So have the two ministers of the National Religious Party.

Mr Sharon, a retired general, condemned the deal as "a terrible agreement". After a ministerial briefing on Tuesday night, he said he was "more worried" than ever about the settlers' safety. Mr Begin, son of the Likud's legendary founder, Menachem Begin, is being mentioned as a standard- bearer to challenge Mr Netanyahu for the party leadership.

Yitzhak Shamir, the doctrinaire former Likud prime minister, accused Mr Netanyahu of betraying the party's ideology. "The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel for ever, without partners," Mr Shamir told the Ma'ariv newspaper yesterday. "The government's willingness to implement the Oslo accords is a fatal error. The notion that decisions of a previous government have to be fulfilled is stupid and malicious."

The Prime Minister's majority is not, however, in doubt in either the 18-member Cabinet or parliament, where he can rely on the support of Labour and the left-wing Meretz for the Hebron agreement.