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A first step in Hebron

January 20, 2006

ISRAEL'S ACTING PRIME MINISTER, Ehud Olmert, has begun the long-overdue removal of some settlers from the West Bank town of Hebron, which is revered by Jews and Muslims as the burial place of Abraham/Ibrahim and for decades has witnessed religious bloodshed.

This week, the Israeli army sealed off Jewish settlements to stop more outsiders coming in to support a handful of Israelis who the government says are illegally occupying Palestinian homes. The army acted after hundreds of young right-wing activists flocked to Hebron and threw stones and paint bombs at Israeli troops.

The violence was reminiscent of settlers' clashes with soldiers last year in the Gaza Strip when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out the removal of settlers and army outposts. Sharon remains in a coma, leaving Olmert to run the nation until national elections in March.

International jurists consider Israeli settlements on land seized in the 1967 war illegal. Israel disputes that, but it has removed a tiny number of settlement outposts in the Palestinian territories. Sharon had been expected to remove some of the more than 200,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank if he won reelection but to keep several of the larger settlements.

In Hebron, the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- considered the burial place of Abraham and his wife, Sarah -- contains a mosque next to a synagogue. Israeli soldiers were guarding the entrance and scrutinizing visitors carefully even before this week's battles. In 1994, a U.S.-born doctor stormed into the tomb and fatally shot 29 Palestinians. In 1929, decades before the creation of Israel, Muslims massacred dozens of Jews in the town. More than three years ago, an attack there by the terrorist group Islamic Jihad killed a dozen Israelis. Settlers have been accused of poisoning animals that Palestinians depend on for their livelihoods and of stoning Muslim children on their way to school. The once-bustling marketplace has long been virtually deserted.

The Hebron clashes demonstrate the difficulty Israel will have in dismantling West Bank settlements, especially if it also must continue to guard against Palestinian terrorists. Protecting about 500 settlers who live among 150,000 Palestinians in Hebron is a drain on Israel's resources.

But if all settlers are removed, the Palestinians need to ensure that Israelis and other visitors have access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. When Jordan ruled the West Bank, it blocked access to much of the site.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, facing his own parliamentary elections next week, should salute Olmert for his resolute action. After the balloting, Abbas also will need to carry out his own long-overdue campaign to get the guns out of the hands of Palestinian terrorists.

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