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Top Israelis, Palestinians aim to conclude Hebron pact

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JERUSALEM, Jan. 2 (JTA) — Despite intensive contacts between negotiators on a Hebron agreement, an essential meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders appeared this week to remain elusive. The two sides continued talking, even after an Israeli soldier shot seven Palestinians in Hebron, saying that he wanted to thwart an agreement on redeploying Israeli troops from most of the West Bank town. Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned the attack and appealed for calm. Leaders from both sides had voiced optimism earlier in the week about meeting their self-imposed New Year’s Day deadline to conclude the agreement on transferring much of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule. However, as of Thursday, it was unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat would have met to initial an accord, even if the shooting in the Hebron market had not occurred. A hoped-for Wednesday summit was put off, in part because of Netanyahu’s need to take part in a crucial Knesset vote on the 1997 state budget. But with the budget ratified early Wednesday morning, officials said they were still grappling with outstanding issues related to the Hebron accord. Negotiators had concluded all security matters specifically relating to a Hebron redeployment, Israel Radio reported. Quoting political sources, the report said the two sides agreed on the gradual opening of Shuhada Street, near the Jewish quarter. The street was closed for security reasons. Negotiators were leaving the question of security at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site to both Jews and Muslims, to Arafat and Netanyahu to decide. Wrapping up an agreement, therefore, seemed to be delayed not because of issues specific to Hebron, but because of differences surrounding the next phase of the peace process. Arafat’s deputy Mahmoud Abbas, who also is known as Abu-Mazen, met with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai Wednesday and Thursday. Abbas said the sides had still not come up with a timetable for three further Israeli troop redeployments in rural parts of the West Bank that are called for under the 1995 Interim Agreement. A commitment to implementing the further redeployments would be included in a side letter prepared by the United States and attached to the Hebron accord. It also would include a commitment by the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations under the accords. Netanyahu has said Israel would carry out the first of the three further redeployments six weeks after the Hebron agreement is signed. “There are no outstanding issues unless the Palestinians raise a new issue or demand the reopening of an issue that has been concluded,” said David Bar-Illan, a senior adviser to Netanyahu. In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States believes that “an agreement is there for the taking,” but Israel and the Palestinians “have got to make the decision.” U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, whose mediation efforts spurred the flurry of negotiations during the past two weeks that brought a Hebron agreement seemingly within reach, took part in talks at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk and traveled to Gaza for consultations with Arafat. In Hebron on Thursday, the atmosphere was tense but quiet. Large numbers of Israeli troops were stationed in the market area, where an off-duty Israeli soldier had opened fire, wounding seven Palestinians before other Israeli soldiers subdued him. Noam Friedman, 22, of Ma’aleh Adumim, which is outside Jerusalem, did not serve in Hebron, but was in an administrative unit. Friedman, a religious Jew, said he felt compelled to stop the Hebron redeployment from being carried out. Reports that Friedman had suffered from psychological problems in the years before his compulsory army service also sparked debate over why he was drafted and issued a weapon. A Petach Tikva court on Thursday extended Friedman’s detention for 15 more days. Police also disclosed that another soldier, a friend of Friedman’s, was suspected of being an accomplice in the act. Police said Yuval Jibli, 21, of Jerusalem, allegedly colluded with Friedman, and failed to prevent him from carrying out the criminal act.

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