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Israelis Debate Withdrawal as Hebron Seethes


JERUSALEM — An Israeli rabbi was stabbed in the back by an unidentified Palestinian in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron on Wednesday, causing a near-riot in the Arab market where the 72-year-old man was shopping.

After the attack, Jewish settlers overturned vegetable stalls in the market and chanted "death to the Arabs."

The stabbing of Rabbi Nissim Gudai occurred as Jewish settlers demonstrated with guns and Bibles outside Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, where legislators met in a special session called by right-wing parties trying to prevent the hand-over of Hebron to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Israel agreed to the transfer in its interim peace accord with Arafat, and to Palestinians the special session seemed an effort to weasel out of the agreement.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres delayed the Israeli troop redeployment from Hebron after a wave of Hamas suicide bombings began on Feb. 25 and took more than 60 lives in nine days.

The Islamic fundamentalist group has a strong base of support among the approximately 120,000 Arab residents of Hebron, and two of the four recent suicide bombers came from the Al Fawar refugee camp nearby.

Last week, when the Palestine Liberation Organization's parliament answered Israel's long-standing demand to eliminate the call for Israel's destruction from its charter, Peres promised to go forward with the redeployment.

But some members of Peres' Labor Party are urging the prime minister to wait until after the May 29 national elections to pull troops out of Hebron.

They fear that radical settlers or Hamas extremists could respond with violence, possibly threatening Peres' election bid.

And now, although the opposition's candidate for prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said he would comply with the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements if elected, his Likud Party is also seeking a delay until after the election, presumably to thwart the redeployment if it wins the vote.

"Security in all of Hebron must be under Israel's sole responsibility," Likud's Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister, told Israel Radio during a visit to Hebron after the stabbing.


On the lawn outside Israel's parliament, several hundred Jewish settlers gathered in protest over the planned redeployment, carrying rifles and babies over their shoulders, popsicles and Bibles in their hands.

They looked like picnickers on a bright May afternoon, but they sounded a dark warning: The hand-over of Hebron is the first step in the destruction of the Jewish state, they argued, one that will lead to a Jewish blood bath.

"Today they stab us with a knife, tomorrow they will shoot us" said Elyakim Hatzni of Kiryat Arba, leader of the Action Committee to Abolish (Palestinian) Autonomy.

Hebron is the last of seven West Bank cities occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War to be handed over to the Palestinians under Arafat's leadership. It is also the most difficult.

About 450 Jews live in the center of Hebron, surrounded by Palestinians who are embittered by nearly three decades of Israeli rule. Also downtown is the Cave of the Patriarchs, celebrated by both Muslims and Jews as the tomb of the biblical Abraham.


Israeli troops are to remain at the tomb and around six Jewish enclaves in town, which would leave about 15,000 Palestinians still under Israeli control there. A team of international observers led by Norwegians is to move into the city to serve as a buffer and referee between the two sides.

The observers have been in Hebron before, after the February 1994 massacre of about 30 Palestinian worshipers at the tomb by Baruch Goldstein, a settler from nearby Kiryat Arba.

Goldstein did not commit the only mass killing in Hebron.

In 1929, anti-Jewish riots organized by Muslim religious leaders led to an Arab invasion of the city's Jewish quarter. Of the city's 700 Jews, 67 were killed and 60 wounded. The remaining families fled.

The new Jewish community was founded in 1968. Many of its residents and some of those in Kiryat Arba adhere to a militant wing of religious Zionism and believe that they have a mission to resettle the biblical land of Israel, including Hebron.

They are heavily armed and vow to never leave the land they call by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria.

The grandfatherly Hatzni belongs to civilian patrols that the settlers established recently with the stated purpose of guarding against Arab attacks.

"Every week, my wife and I go in the car with coffee and cake for the soldiers and, of course, we are armed with our own licensed weapons. If, by chance, we encounter an attack on Jews, we would help them," he said.

Near Hatzni, Yeshiva students sat for a reading from the Torah. Children ran past with "Hebron" bumper stickers pasted to their backs. Mothers in long dresses and head covers sought refuge from the heat under the trees.

To many of the demonstrators, the stabbing of Rabbi Gudai was further proof of their axiom that Arabs are not to be trusted.

Palestinians, in turn, saw proof of their argument that Israeli troops should have pulled out long ago.

"The stabbing was an irresponsible act aimed at hindering redeployment in the city," said Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natsheh, a Palestinian.

But he added that "this stabbing happened because Israeli soldiers are here and not the Palestinian police."

Peres has not said when the redeployment will take place, although he suggested that it will happen in stages over the coming weeks.

"We are committed to this in a signed, international agreement," Yossi Beilin, Peres' right-hand man, said in an interview.

Does the government fear violence?

"Fear is not a policy," Beilin said. "This is our commitment and we have to do it."

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