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5 Palestinians Slain as Hebron Violence Flares

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israel’s security forces Wednesday battled armed Palestinian extremists for more than 18 hours in a firefight that left at least five Palestinians dead, among them a pregnant woman and four men identified by authorities as the most wanted Islamic fundamentalist fighters in this shellshocked city.

During the combat, flares lit the sky, more than 100 antitank missiles exploded and thousands of rounds of gunfire ripped the neighborhood where the Israeli army attacked and destroyed at least one house.

Wednesday’s battle was half a mile from the Cave of the Patriarchs mosque, the site of the Feb. 25 massacre of about 30 Palestinian worshipers by a Brooklyn-born Jewish settler.

Palestinian leaders charged that a second massacre was occurring in Hebron, a city of 125,000 Palestinians that was shattered to the core by the murders of a month ago.

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But a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces--which have kept the entire city under strict military curfew for 24 days to prevent Palestinian retaliation against the 415 Jewish settlers who live here--said Israeli soldiers had fought suspected Palestinian extremists who had barricaded themselves in the Hebron house.

Gen. Ehud Barak, Israel’s military chief of staff, opened his testimony Wednesday before a judicial commission investigating the mosque massacre with a statement disclosing the firefight, reports of which had been subject to state censorship.

He said the military operation in Hebron began Tuesday, lasted a full 18 hours--though some reports said it lasted 22 hours--and resulted in the deaths of four of the most important Islamic fundamentalist resistance fighters in a city known to be a hotbed for armed Palestinian extremism.

A spokesman for Barak’s armed forces said a preliminary check indicated that civilian casualties, among them the pregnant woman, were caused by extremist fire.

But Israel Radio--and other reports--agreed with Palestinian accounts, asserting that Israeli soldiers accidentally shot and killed the pregnant woman, Hunduk Zahdeh, during the firefight. Palestinian sources here said she was hit by a bullet while watching the clashes from the window of her home.

Israeli officials said six soldiers with their security forces had been lightly injured.

Wednesday’s casualties brought to more than 70 the number of Palestinians killed throughout the occupied territories since Baruch Goldstein, an ultranationalist Jewish settler, fired more than 100 bullets at Muslims praying in a mosque.

The new round of violence that tore through Hebron underscored why the city’s continuing nightmare has thrust it, center stage, into the stalled Middle East peace process.

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“A new massacre has taken place, beginning yesterday, and it is still going on,” Ahmad Timimi, chairman of the self-proclaimed Hebron Emergency Committee, said at a meeting of the city’s moderate Palestinian leadership, which occurred at the height of the Hebron battle Wednesday morning.

The renewed unrest here--despite the army crackdown--compounded a deterioration and despair so intense that the Israeli government apparently has agreed to demands by the Palestine Liberation Organization that Jerusalem negotiate the possibility of an armed, international peacekeeping force in Hebron. The PLO and Israeli officials continued to negotiate that issue and others in Cairo on Wednesday.

“In addition to all these massacres that are being committed, I see the town of Hebron is falling apart--economically, psychologically and in all aspects of life,” said Timimi, a supporter of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and his attempts to make peace with Israel.

Most Palestinians and Israelis here agree that a continuing source of controversy is the presence of 415 Jewish settlers in the heart of Hebron. Most are ultranationalists who believe that this city, occupied along with the rest of the West Bank during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, is an integral part of Israel. They are committed to re-establishing a permanent Israeli presence, which ended in 1929 when 67 Jews were massacred in an Arab uprising.

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Arafat has demanded in meetings with Israeli negotiators this week that the settlers be moved out of Hebron before he returns to the bargaining table. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said the small settlements in Hebron are non-negotiable and that any decision to evacuate settlers is “a purely Israeli matter.”

But in a meeting with his ruling Labor Party on Wednesday, Rabin appeared to sympathize with the Palestinians’ deepening plight. “I get information from Hebron, a sensitive place where for 24 days, 100,000 to 120,000 Palestinians have been under curfew because of 415 Jews, because the consideration right now isn’t the security of Arabs but the prevention of friction and the place catching on fire,” he said.

The issue of the Hebron settlers is explosive for Israelis, as an emergency session of the Parliament, the Knesset, demonstrated all too well later Wednesday.

“Mr. Prime Minister, whoever tries to uproot the Jews from Hebron will find all of us there, the masses of the House of Israel, who will defend the Jewish right to live in Hebron, city of our forefathers,” declared Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition right-wing Likud Party, which has supported the settlers and opposed Rabin’s peace accords with Arafat.

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Rabin shot back at Netanyahu: “I don’t accept any of your threats! You will not gather in Hebron! You will gather in the Knesset! Decisions about Hebron are made in the Knesset. Don’t try to frighten us.”

Among the Palestinians in Hebron, there was plenty of fear to go around Wednesday.

Reacting to the fiery national and international debate about the Hebron settlers, Aziz Amr, an emergency committee member, said he and many other moderate Palestinians believe the mosque massacre and the ensuing violence have handed Rabin “a golden opportunity to evacuate the settlers from the heart of the city--not as part of the PLO negotiations but as a purely Israeli decision to safeguard the security of the Jews.”

* ARMY DEFENDED: A general defends Israeli army role in mosque massacre. A4

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