Security arrangements in the West Bank town of Hebron have emerged as the leading obstacle to completing an agreement on expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
“There s a crisis in the talks,” said Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a participant in the negotiations with the Palestinians. “The crisis is mainly over the Hebron issue.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, after a series of meetings last week at the Red Sea resort of Taba, were unable to resolve the issue of who would have control in Hebron.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators returned to the bargaining table in Eilat this week to try to bridge the gap over Hebron.
The next phase of Palestinian self-rule calls for an Israeli army redeployment from major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.
But Hebron, the only West Bank city with a Jewish settler population – some 400 Israelis live in the center of the town – presents some thorny security questions.
Last week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin proposed for the first time a partial Israel Defense Force troop withdrawal in Hebron.
Rabin is insisting that Israeli troops remain in control of areas deemed necessary for the protection of settlers in Hebron and in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba.
Arafat is pressing for an Israeli declaration that Hebron is a Palestinian town. Although agreeing on a phased withdrawal of Israel troops, Arafat is demanding that it ultimately be a complete withdrawal.
Rabin expressed optimism Monday that a solution would be found for Hebron – but he would not speculate when the interim agreement would be signed.
The two sides have also locked horns over control of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site holy to Jews and Arabs alike.
On Monday, a Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs, as well as Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and said both sites would remain under Israeli control.
“If the general principles of the interim-phase agreement provide for no evacuation of settlements, certainly it implies that there will not be an evacuation of the holy sites,” he said.
In Eilat over the weekend, the Palestinians rejected a compromise proposal for security in Hebron that Peres had submitted to Arafat.
Under the proposal, which was drawn up by the head of the IDF’s Planning Branch, Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, the Palestinians would have all civil and municipal responsibility in Hebron. The IDF would withdraw from a number of neighborhoods, but remain responsible for security in most areas.
In exchange, Israel would take additional steps toward normalizing life in the town for its 120,000 Palestinians residents, including the reopening of Hebron’s central market as well as some of its main thoroughfares.
Arafat, while pressing his demands at the bargaining table, has apparently been issuing renewed calls for a jihad, or armed struggle, if the negotiations fail.
Likud Knesset member Ze’ev Begin and Labor Knesset member Emanuel Zismann presented at a Sept. 7 news conference a videotape of excerpts from recent appearances by Arafat on Palestinian television.
The videotape was made by a Tel Aviv-based group, the Institute for Peace Education, which has been monitoring and recording Arafat’s recent speeches.
The clips included an excerpt from an Aug. 6 speech at Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, in which Arafat said, “If the Israelis think that we have no alternatives [to negotiations], by Allah, they are wrong.
“The Palestinian people are prepared to sacrifice their last boy and their last girl in order to wave the Palestinian flag.”
Begin said the statements were a clear warning against Israel’s continuing negotiations with the PLO.
Meanwhile, flaring tempers have led to violent confrontations between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in Hebron.
On Sunday, Jewish and Arab residents of Hebron clashed when Jewish settlers tried to remove a Palestinian flag from outside a girl’s school in the town.
After the settlers’ attempt, Palestinian students held a protest march outside the school.
Several Palestinians were injured by Jewish settlers from the nearby Beit Hadassah complex in Hebron.
A scuffle was also reported between the school’s headmistress and a Jewish woman.
Palestinian witnesses maintained that the settler had attacked the headmistress. Jewish settlers said the headmistress beat the woman when she tried to videotape the incident.
On Monday, scuffles broke out once more outside the Palestinian school in Hebron, with Palestinians saying that Jewish settlers had again tried to remove a Palestinian flag flying outside the school.
The flag was later removed by Israeli security forces, which said the flag had been hoisted illegally.
In further unrest, unidentified men wearing Israeli army uniforms last Friday killed a Palestinian from Halhoul, located near Hebron.
Rabin said at Sundays’ weekly Cabinet meeting that if Jews killed 23-year-old Salman Azamareh, the Palestinians would likely use the incident to demand a greater presence of Palestinian police in the Hebron area.
An Israeli police crime unit took over the investigation into the Halhoul killing.
Israeli security sources said they had determined that Jews, not Arabs, were responsible for the killing of Azamareh shortly after midnight last Friday.
Most of the investigation has focused on intelligence gathering. No ballistic tests were performed, because the victim’s family buried Azamareh before any could be done.
According to reports, five armed men entered a number of homes in Halhoul late Thursday night, claiming to be soldiers.
They demanded residents to show them identity cards and beat some of them.
Azamareh was shot dead when he arrived home after midnight and encountered the gunmen, who had already tied up his father.
Two separate Israeli extremist groups have claimed responsibility for the attack.
One of the groups, Ayal, Hebrew for “ram,” is reportedly a youth group associated with the militant anti-Arab Kach movement, which is outlawed in Israel.
The other group calls itself the Sword of David.
A spokesman for Ayal said members of the group had gone underground, anticipating a police roundup of activists.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal said police were still investigating all possible angles, but that the harshest measures would be taken if it turned out that Jewish extremists had carried out the attack.
“Without a doubt, this incident has lit a warning light illuminating the possibility that people may carry out such detestable deeds,” Shahal told Army Radio.
In recent weeks government ministers have expressed concern that the increasing, and often violent, anti-government protests could lead to extremist violence, directed not only at Palestinians but at Israeli civil servants, police and military.
Shahal presented the Cabinet on Sunday with documents distributed by Zo Artzeinu, a grass-roots settlers group, which he said encouraged violence at upcoming protests.
Israeli police recently were ordered by Israel’s attorney general to launch an investigation of Zo Artzeinu regarding protest activities it organized.
Rabin said that even though opposition demonstrations must be allowed in any democratic society, violent ones must be stamped out.
In response to Shahal’s claim, Moshe Feiglin of Zo Artzeinu called on supporters to attend a protest – with their hands tied above their heads – scheduled for later this week opposite the prime minister’s residence.
Feiglin said this would illustrate the group’s belief in nonviolent protest.
Palestinian officials said they did not think that the killing of the Halhoul man would have a negative impact on the peace process if Israel took appropriate measures to capture and punish the perpetrators.