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Israeli Settler Killed in Dispute Over Farmland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A long-running dispute over farmland near this Jewish settlement turned deadly Sunday when an Israeli settler was shot and killed by Palestinians, and three other people, including a Palestinian man, were wounded.

The confrontation in the hills about 12 miles southeast of Hebron began when several settlers tried to force a group of Palestinians to leave a piece of land that both sides claim. The two groups quarreled and, according to Israeli army officials, one of the Palestinians grabbed a settler’s gun and opened fire, killing Dov Dribben, a 28-year-old resident of Maon.

Two other settlers were injured, one of them moderately, and a Palestinian was shot in the chest, apparently by one of the Israelis. The incident is under investigation, and the army detained several Palestinians on Sunday for questioning.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, called the shooting a “very serious matter,” coming as it did at a time of high tension between Israelis and Palestinians over the lack of progress toward peace.

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“This young man was killed in cold blood,” Netanyahu declared. “It’s straightforward murder.”

But others, including Palestinian residents and Israeli security sources in the area where the shooting occurred, said the incident was not so clear-cut. Dribben and the Israeli settlers wounded with him had histories of provoking confrontations with Palestinians who live nearby, the security sources said, asking not to be quoted by name.

The violence Sunday morning broke out just hours before Blair arrived in Jerusalem in a new effort to revive the deadlocked Middle East peace process, and it underscored just how difficult his task will be.

U.S. peace envoy Dennis B. Ross is scheduled to arrive in the region at the end of the week on another shuttle mission to try to persuade Israel and the Palestinians to make progress in the peace talks, which have been stalled for more than a year. The Clinton administration is pushing a new U.S. initiative that calls on Israel to hand over more West Bank land to the Palestinians in exchange for a tougher Palestinian response to anti-Israel Islamic militants. Neither side has yet agreed to the plan.

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Blair, who is visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories during his first Middle East tour as prime minister, is fresh from a success in brokering a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. But he made clear from the outset here Sunday that he expected no major breakthrough during his visit and said he hoped to support, not supplant, the role of the United States as the key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Anything we can do constructively, we will,” Blair said. “But it is not our purpose to do anything . . . to cut across the American proposals.”

The British leader met with Netanyahu for several hours Sunday and will travel to the Gaza Strip today for talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He and Arafat are expected to announce the establishment of a joint European-Palestinian security committee to strengthen the Palestinian effort to fight terrorism--a key demand by Israel.

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Israeli officials and investigators said Sunday that the incident near Maon appeared to be a local dispute, without wider political or terrorist motives. But it once again highlighted the battle over land that is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fellow Jewish settlers and friends of Dribben said he was a gentle man who devoted his life to his family and the small farm he was trying to establish near the settlement. They said the land is owned by Israel.

“He was my friend, a good man who liked open space and lived here for five years,” said Noam Chen, a Maon resident who was taking photographs of the shooting site.

Mourners at Dribben’s house, a mobile home on a hilltop several hundred yards from the nearest neighbors, said they could not comment on him or the circumstances surrounding his death.

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But Palestinians said the disputed land was owned by the family of Musa Debabseh, 33, who was shot in the chest during the incident. Debabseh was taken to a Hebron hospital, where he was in stable condition late Sunday.

Several Palestinians said Dribben was well known to the Debabseh family and other residents of the nearby town of Yatta, a Palestinian community of about 11,000. They called him an aggressive settler who had started several confrontations with residents and periodically blocked routes leading from Yatta to the disputed land, forcing Palestinians to travel several miles around on winding hillside roads.

Debabseh’s sister, Amneh, 37, said her brother had gone to the land Sunday with three other men, a woman and a child to prepare it for spring planting and to allow his sheep to graze there. He was not seeking confrontation, she said, and did not carry weapons.

“This land is ours,” she said. “Our family has owned it for many years, but this man [Dribben] and his friends have tried to take it away.”

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