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Tensions high in Hebron as IDF redeployment nears

JERUSALEM, Dec. 26 (JTA) — Tensions remained high in Hebron as Israeli and Palestinian officials voiced optimism Thursday about concluding an agreement before year’s end on redeploying Israeli forces from most of the West Bank town. A firebomb was thrown Thursday at Beit Hadassah in the Jewish Quarter. No one was injured and there was no damage. The attack came after the previous day’s scuffles between Israeli border police and Jewish settlers, who had tried to take over four vacant buildings in the Arab market near the quarter. Also Wednesday, three firebombs were thrown at Israeli Defense Force troops stationed in Hebron. These incidents of violence occurred as Israel and the Palestinian Authority appeared, for the first time in more than three months of negotiations, near an agreement on Hebron. U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who returned Thursday to Washington to brief President Clinton on the talks, said he expected an agreement to be signed shortly after he returns to the region early next week. Ross’ optimism came after what he called an “extremely productive” meeting Tuesday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. Addressing Palestinian legislative council members Thursday in Ramallah, Arafat said he expected to sign a Hebron deal with Israel on Monday or Tuesday. Arafat said the agreement, which will turn over most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule, would not differ from the one signed with the previous Labor government. The Peres government had postponed its implementation after a spate of suicide bombings in Israel earlier this year. It was further delayed after the May election of Netanyahu, who sought additional security guarantees for the 450 Jewish settlers, who live among 130,000 Palestinians in Hebron. The Palestinians, meanwhile, pressed for guarantees that other elements of the Israeli-Palestinian accords would be carried out by the Netanyahu government. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were continuing Thursday to discuss security aspects of a Hebron accord, including a buffer zone around the Jewish quarter in the city, and the arming of Palestinian police. U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, who took part in the talks, told reporters that while the negotiations were making progress, he did not expect a signing until Ross returned. The president has been following the talks closely, Indyk said, adding, “We hope we can reach an agreement soon after” he is briefed by Ross. Netanyahu has said any deal would be brought to his Cabinet for approval. In anticipation of a vote, the prime minister was busy meeting with coalition members to enlist their support. At least six Cabinet members, including National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, are opposed to the Hebron redeployment, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. In a related move, Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s justice minister, called on a group of right-wing rabbis, Rabbis for the Land of Israel, to rescind a Jewish legal ruling forbidding Israeli soldiers from carrying out a Hebron redeployment.