Arab Attacks Rabbi in Hebron; Date of Redeployment Unclear

As the spotlight moved this week to Israel’s plans for an army redeployment in Hebron, a 72-year-old rabbi was seriously wounded in a stabbing attack in the West Bank town.

The attack sparked additional questions about the safety of Jewish residents there after an army pullback.

The incident occurred Wednesday as the Knesset convened for a special session called by opposition members to discuss the wisdom of the redeployment.

Rabbi Nissim Gudai, who is from Kiryat Arba, was in Hebron’s Arab vegetable market when he was stabbed in the back by a Palestinian assailant who then fled.

Gudai, with the knife still protruding from his back, was taken to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where his condition was described as serious, but not life threatening.

Israeli security forces closed the area after the incident and detained several Palestinians.

A number of angry Jewish settlers overturned vegetable carts in protest of the attack.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres has promised to go ahead with the handover of about 85 percent of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule, with the Israeli army staying in the Jewish settlements.

The Israeli army also plans to remained stationed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews and Arabs alike.

The redeployment was to have taken place in late March, but was delayed by Israel after a series of Hamas suicide bombings earlier that month and in late February.

Peres has yet to announce a date for the redeployment, saying Wednesday that the issue would be taken up by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

“They will have to discuss the stages and the dates to carry out this decision,” Peres told reporters in Paris, where he was holding talks with French President Jacques Chirac on his return from a four-day trip to the United States.

Peres’ comments in Paris and in Washington, where he also spoke of a phased redeployment, appeared to throw cold water on recent reports in the Israeli media that the move could take place as early as this weekend.

In the Knesset on Wednesday, Likud members accused the government of trying to push through the redeployment before the May 29 general elections.

“This issue was not an issue in the previous election campaign,” said Moshe Katsav, Likud faction chairman. “The best thing is to give the Israeli population the right to decide in this crucial issue.”

Internal Security Minister Moshe Shahal countered that Israel was obliged to honor its agreements with the Palestinians.

Outside the Knesset, several hundred Kiryat Arba and Hebron residents protested the planned redeployment.

Earlier in the day, several dozen supporters of the dovish Meretz Party demonstrated, demanding an immediate redeployment in Hebron.

Visiting Hebron on Tuesday, hardline Likud Knesset member Ariel Sharon said the town should be allowed some level of self-rule, but that Israel should have overall responsibility for security there.

On Monday, the Jewish community of Hebron held a day of fasting and prayer, calling for the redeployment not to take place.

Settlers warned that the troop pullback from the town, where Jewish and Arab residents live in close proximity to each other, would end in a bloodbath.

The fervently religious party Agudat Yisrael voiced its support for the settlers and called on Peres to consider delaying the redeployment or canceling it altogether.

But Peres was unlikely to do so, having already rejected a similar request from the spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Hebron is the seventh and final town to come under Palestinian self-rule under the terms of the Interim Agreement signed in September in Washington.

With some 400 settlers living among 120,000 Palestinians, Hebron presents the most formidable security challenge of all the West Bank Arab population centers.

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