Hebron Agreement Delayed As Arafat Departs the Region

Prospects for an imminent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on Hebron dimmed once again this week after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat left for a trip to Europe.

In a further signal that the talks were stalemated, U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross said Monday that he would leave the region for consultations in Washington.

Last week, Ross announced that he was departing for Washington only to change his plans at the last minute, prompting speculation that an agreement would soon be reached for the long-delayed Israeli troop redeployment in Hebron.

Despite this week’s clear setbacks, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued their contacts in an effort to conclude an agreement by next week.

The delay in the talks came at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Israeli officials, clearly annoyed, blamed Arafat for the delay in completing the talks.

“What are left is a small number of issues; you can count them on one hand,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters.

“The thing that’s causing the delay at this moment is the absence of a decision or the absence of an order from the highest level on the Palestinian side.”

Netanyahu spokesman Shai Bazak said, “We’re mad at Arafat. He’s apparently trying to stall.”

In Washington, Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar said Ross had asked Arafat to postpone his European trip.

But Arafat “decided nonetheless to go to Europe without finalizing the agreement,” Ben-Elissar told a news conference.

He also said Netanyahu was planning to hold a meeting with Arafat at dawn Monday on the Israeli-Gazan border to conclude the agreement.

Israeli officials said only three main issues remained to be resolved: Israel’s demand for the right to pursue suspected terrorists in self-rule areas; freedom of movement for Israeli troops in Arab sections of Hebron; and whether to open a main street that links the Jewish and Arab enclaves in the volatile West Bank town.

For their part, the Palestinians charged Israel with holding up the talks.

“I’m sorry to say that still the Israelis are putting new conditions every day,” Arafat told reporters in Oslo, the first stop on his European tour.

Meanwhile, tensions heightened in the territories.

On Monday, Israeli police detained a security guard for the West Bank Jewish settlement of Hadar Betar on suspicion that he caused the death of a 10-year- old Palestinian boy.

According to eyewitnesses, the boy was one of a group of youths who had thrown stones Sunday at the car of Nahum Kurman, a resident of Efrat.

Kurman stopped his vehicle, chased the boy and kicked him in the head, Palestinian witnesses said.

Kurman denied that he ever touched the boy.

The boy was admitted unconscious to Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem, where he died Monday.

An autopsy revealed that the boy died from a brain hemorrhage caused by a sharp blow. But doctors did not rule out the possibility that the child had fallen on a boulder.

The pins-and-needles atmosphere in Hebron was underscored Sunday after a shooting incident in which Jewish settlers reportedly got out of their cars and began firing on Palestinian houses along the road.

The settlers said they fired in the air after Palestinians threw rocks and bottles at them. There were no reported injuries.

The Jewish settlers in Hebron, meanwhile, are fearful that they will be abandoned to the Palestinian authorities after the Israeli redeployment.

In meetings with top-level Israeli officials this week, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, representatives from Hebron’s Jewish community warned that Israel is about to make a “fatal mistake” by redeploying Israeli troops in Hebron.

Settler leaders, who have been warning of a bloodbath if the Palestinian Authority assumes control of Hebron, emerged dissatisfied from their meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday.

“We asked questions about security and civil matters, and didn’t get any answers,” Noam Arnon, the spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, told Israel Radio. “I think the country is about to make a fatal mistake.”

“These agreements can hold up as long as the situation is calm. But as soon as there are any arguments or misunderstandings with the Palestinians, they will collapse,” he said.

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