Talks to resume after UN slates Hebron killings

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The Independent Online
SYRIA, Jordan and Lebanon have agreed to resume negotiations with Israel, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation will announce a meeting with Israelis shortly, the US ambassador to the United Nations said last night.

Madeleine Albright made the statement during her speech to the UN Security Council, after the 15-member body voted to condemn last month's massacre of some 30 Palestinians by an Israeli settler at a mosque in Hebron.

'First, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon have agreed to resume bilateral negotiations with Israel in April,' she said, before announcing that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation had 'finally agreed to convene a senior-level meeting - the timing of which will be announced in the days ahead'.

In Washington, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said: 'There have been intensive Israel-Palestinian contacts at the highest levels today including a telephone call between Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Rabin and (PLO) Chairman (Yasser) Arafat . . . A senior-level meeting between Israel and the PLO will take place soon and will be announced by the parties.'

Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has hinted that Israel might try to shift its settlers from Hebron. But he has said that Israel must not be seen to be bowing to Palestinian pressure.

Israel controls events on the ground. But the status quo cannot persist. For the three weeks since the massacre, the 100,000 Palestinian people of Hebron have been under a day and night curfew, confined to their homes except for brief breaks for shopping.

Israelis fear that once the curfew is lifted, as in time it must be, then the 400 Jews who live in the centre of Hebron face a massacre, as irate Muslims exact vengeance. Israeli army commanders have said they would need to deploy three full brigades in the town to protect these few Jewish families.

The settlers could be moved out by one of two legal factions. The Israeli government is committed not to dismantle any of the 120 settlements on the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. However, strictly speaking, the Jews who live in Hebron are not in a settlement, but rather in four or five different dwellings. (Kiryat Arba, which houses several thousand Jews on the outskirts of Hebron, is by contrast a true settlement). They could thus be removed. Second, the Israeli authorities could cite the need to protect Jewish lives to justify removing them by force.

Experience shows that Mr Rabin is reluctant to take decisive action. He could have banned the racist Kach movement and taken the settlers out of Hebron immediately after the Hebron massacre. He did not, but waited nine days before banning Kach. So, although legally he has every right to move against the Hebron settlers, politically, with only a tiny majority in parliament and a fragile coalition government, he feels weak.

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