US envoy tries again to seal deal on Hebron

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Bethlehem - United States envoy Dennis Ross met Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in self-ruled Bethlehem yesterday to try again to forge a deal on an Israeli army handover of part of the West Bank town of Hebron.

Mr Ross was making an intense effort to close gaps between Mr Arafat and Israel on Hebron. The Palestinian leader was due to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's negotiator, Yitzhak Molho, later in the day.

Israeli and Palestinian officials both said there could be an Arafat- Netanyahu summit later, although none was scheduled. Palestinians said a summit to clinch a deal could take place in Beit Shour outside Bethlehem.

Officials on both sides said they had agreed on increasing the number of international observers to be posted in Hebron after the Israeli redeployment. But the officials said they still had to sign that deal.

The Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he and Israeli officials, meeting in Jericho, agreed to increase the number of observers in Hebron to 210 from 30 once Israel hands over 80 per cent of the town to Palestinian self-rule.

"We reached agreement basically on all the points and now the agreements go to those in charge on each side. It's hard to estimate when it will be signed," an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said.

Under the agreement 180 peace-keepers from Denmark, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey would join 30 Norwegian observers already stationed in the town.

Hebron, burial place of the biblical Abraham and home to 100,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers, has been a flashpoint of Jewish-Arab violence.

Security issues and other concerns over the past 10 months have delayed the Israeli handover.

"We have made a lot of progress. There is not a lot that separates the parties but there is not an agreement yet and we don't have an agreement until everything is resolved. And everything is not resolved," Mr Ross said after meeting Mr Netanyahu.