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Netanyahu, Arafat Agree on Long-Stalled Hebron Pullout

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After months of bitter wrangling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat met before dawn today and concluded a long-awaited agreement for Israel to pull back its troops from most of Hebron and turn the occupied West Bank city over to Palestinian rule.

Netanyahu and Arafat, who waded through deep mutual distrust to wrap up the U.S.-brokered accord, also agreed to an accompanying American letter setting a timetable for further Israeli redeployments in the West Bank and committing them to final negotiations on outstanding issues.

The Hebron agreement--the first concrete step in peacemaking between Netanyahu’s Likud government and the Palestinians--puts about 80% of Hebron under control of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Hebron’s Jewish enclaves, with about 450 residents, and the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site holy both to Jews and to Muslims, who call it the Ibrahim mosque, will remain under control of the Israeli army.

The accord, initialed by the chief negotiators for the two sides--Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians and Dan Shomron for the Israelis--is expected to be submitted to Netanyahu’s Cabinet today. Israeli officials predicted it will be ratified by a narrow majority of the right-wing and religious ministers.

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Israeli officials said the agreement then most likely would be put before a special session of parliament Thursday; Arafat is expected to present the agreement to his Cabinet and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, possibly today. Arafat and Netanyahu then must sign the agreement.

The redeployment could begin as early as Thursday night. The Israel Defense Forces have said a pullback could occur within hours after an order is given.

In Washington, President Clinton called the accord “a step forward to a lasting Middle East peace.” He praised all who had helped negotiate it and said, “Once again the forces of peace have prevailed over a history of division.”

Clinton noted that the accord is not an end in itself, saying: “This is not a time to relax. Bringing its words to life will require active and continued cooperation.”

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U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, meanwhile, called the Hebron accord “fair and balanced” and said the American letter provides a map for the future.

“These two documents represent a building block in terms of developing relations between the two sides,” Ross said, flanked by Arafat and Netanyahu. “This has been a long and difficult negotiation carried out in the spirit of seriousness and partnership.”

Ross said the two leaders, after they had finished their work, telephoned Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein and thanked them for their mediation.

But neither Netanyahu nor Arafat addressed reporters early today. The discomfort each feels in the other’s presence was visible in their unsmiling faces and perfunctory handshake after reaching the agreement.

Today’s accord, hammered out in months of roller-coaster negotiations, contains few, if any, significant changes from the interim peace accord signed by the Palestinians and the previous Labor Party government in September 1995.

Under the interim accord, Israel was to have pulled out of Hebron last March. But then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres delayed the redeployment after four suicide bombings inside Israel by Islamic extremists left more than 60 dead, including the bombers. The redeployment was further delayed by Israeli national elections in May that brought Netanyahu to power on a promise of moving more slowly in peacemaking and by an outburst of violence in Jerusalem in September.

U.S. negotiators said the Hebron agreement adds details to general guidelines laid out in the interim accord and restates both sides’ obligations. The latest document effectively shows how the interim accord will be put in effect.

“There are no new elements,” a U.S. official said. “Each side wanted the other to recommit, to reaffirm their commitment to implement what they already had agreed to.”

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Still, both sides have sought to portray the new deal as a victory; extremists from each side are certain to reject it as a dangerous compromise.

Jewish extremists do not want the Palestinians to have any authority in a city that they say has belonged to Jews for more than 3,500 years. They say they will be insufficiently protected under this agreement and that Arab terrorists will kill them, just as they killed 67 Jewish residents of Hebron during riots in 1929. Palestinian radicals, meanwhile, want the Jewish settlers evicted and the Israeli military ousted from the Palestinian city that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Netanyahu, who promised in his election campaign to provide Israelis “peace with security,” has said the new accord will give greater protection to Hebron’s Jewish settlers. He has pointed to new limits on the weapons Palestinian police can carry and approval of joint patrols on hills overlooking the Jewish enclaves.

The Palestinians, who for weeks had refused to consider any changes to existing agreements, have sought to minimize the adjustments made. They emphasized their defeat of Israel’s attempt to specify the right of its soldiers to reenter Palestinian-controlled territory at will.

The principal changes in the accord stem from the September combat between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers during riots that erupted after Netanyahu approved the midnight opening of a tunnel door in Jerusalem’s disputed Old City. Seventy-five people died and more than 1,000 were wounded in those clashes.

The changes include:

* Buffer zones. An “adjacent zone” of several hundred yards will be created between Jewish enclaves and Arab neighborhoods. Palestinian police may enter only in mobile units with Israeli soldiers. There were no buffer zones in the interim agreement.

* Weapons limits. Palestinian police patrolling with Israelis may carry submachine guns, while the Israelis will carry longer-range M-16 semiautomatic rifles. No such restrictions existed before.

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* Building restrictions. There will be height limits on Palestinian buildings around Jewish settlements. (Jewish buildings also will have height limits.) The previous accord did not include specifics.

* High ground. An Israeli-Palestinian patrol will cover ground overlooking Jewish enclaves; this plateau was under Palestinian security before.

In another new arrangement, there will be special traffic rules and construction of a wall between Arab and Jewish areas on part of Shuhada Street, the main road running from the center of the city past the Jewish enclaves to an Arab vegetable market. Israel sought this to prevent sniping or car bombs aimed at Jewish settlers, who fear a repeat of the 1929 massacre.

The street has been closed to Arab traffic since 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a right-wing Jewish extremist, massacred about 30 Muslims at prayer at the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The interim agreement called for the street to be open to all traffic; the new pact says it will be opened gradually within four months.

The accord is to be accompanied by the U.S. “note for the record,” laying out further commitments by each side. It reportedly says Israel will agree to more redeployments and to resume final talks on the future of Jewish settlements; the return of Palestinian refugees; control over East Jerusalem; borders of the Palestinian rule area; and Palestinian statehood. Israel also agrees to negotiate to release Palestinian prisoners; allow construction of a Gaza Strip port and operation of an airport; and to open a free passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

In turn, the Palestinians commit to ensuring that the PLO Charter does not contain any reference to the destruction of Israel. They agree to cease any operations outside of designated self-rule areas. They will abide by security measures, dismantling groups associated with terrorism and disarming those with illegal weapons.

Trounson reported from Erez crossing and Miller from Jerusalem.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Path to Peace

Oct. 25, 1995: Israel begins West Bank pullout in the northern town of Janin. Tulkarm, Kalqilya, Nablus and Bethlehem follow over next two months.

Nov. 4, 1995: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin assassinated by a Jewish law student opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. Shimon Peres assumes power.

Dec. 27, 1995: Israel pulls out of Ramallah, giving Arafat control of seven out of eight West Bank cities and 400 villages. Hebron remains under Israeli control.

Jan. 5, 1996: Islamic fundamentalist bomb maker Yehiya Ayash assassinated in the Gaza Strip with exploding telephone. Israel never acknowledges responsibility but is widely believed responsible.

Jan. 20, 1996: Under peace accords, Palestinians hold first election for a self-rule government. Yasser Arafat is elected president of Palestinian Authority with 88% of the vote.

Feb. 25 to March 4, 1996: Four suicide bombs explode in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and near Ashkelon, killing 62 people, including the bombers. Islamic extremists opposed to the peace process claim responsibility.

May 29, 1996: Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu beats Prime Minister Shimon Peres in national elections.

June 18, 1996: Netanyahu is sworn in as prime minister with a rightist-religious coalition government.

Sept. 24, 1996: Netanyahu opens a tourist tunnel door in Jerusalem’s Old City, sparking four days of riots and armed clashes between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers that left 75 dead and more than 1,000 wounded.

Dec. 12-13, 1996: Palestinians opposed to the peace accords kill a mother and son from the West Bank settlement of Beit El in a drive-by shooting. The following day, Netanyahu offers special status and economic benefits to strengthen West Bank Jewish settlements.

Jan. 1, 1997: Off-duty Israeli soldier opens fire on Arab market in Hebron, wounding five Palestinians.

Jan. 9, 1997: Two bombs of unknown origin explode in a poor, immigrant neighborhood of Tel Aviv, wounding 13. Israel blames Palestinian guerrillas.

Source: Times Jerusalem Bureau


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