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West Bank city of Hebron could be powder keg as Mideast peace talks begin

Hebron, home to more than 150,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers, is often at the center of the storm, and it is once again. Residents are bracing themselves and warn violence could spread.

September 02, 2010|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Residents of the Jewish settlement of Beit Hagai in Hebron resume construction of a housing project.
Residents of the Jewish settlement of Beit Hagai in Hebron resume construction… (Marco Longari / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Hebron, West Bank — The fate of the U.S.-sponsored peace talks launched Thursday in Washington could hinge in part on how things play out in this hotly disputed West Bank city, where extremists on opposite sides suddenly find they share a common purpose: to sabotage the process.

The militant Palestinian movement Hamas, which hasn't openly attacked West Bank settlers in about two years, renewed its campaign of violence this week with two drive-by shootings. It claimed responsibility for killing four settlers near Hebron on Tuesday and injuring two others a day later near Ramallah.

Jewish settlers around Hebron responded by throwing rocks at Palestinians and setting fire to a field. On Thursday, they demonstrated their contempt for what they termed the "fancy ceremonies" in Washington by rolling out bulldozers and cement mixers to resume construction in defiance of Israel's 10-month moratorium. Settlers are also calling for the reinstallation of West Bank checkpoints and the waiving of gun permits to enable settlers to carry weapons.

The developments serve as a reminder that before Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can tackle big-picture issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and refugees, the peace process will have to survive some daunting short-term challenges. Among them are the Sept. 26 expiration of Israel's construction moratorium and a spike in Palestinian violence.

Hebron, home to more than 150,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers, is often at the center of the storm, and it is once again. Residents are bracing themselves and warn that violence could spread to other parts of the West Bank.

"The talks have renewed the cycle of violence," said Khaled Amayreh , a Palestinian journalist and analyst. "Things are heating up."

The next month will test the resolve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, analysts say. Friction and violence at the launch of peace talks is nothing new. The question is whether the leaders will press ahead despite provocations or use them as justification to walk away.

The two leaders agreed in their first direct talks Thursday to meet again in the Middle East in two weeks, and then to reconvene about every two weeks thereafter. U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell cited a "constructive and positive mood" in the meeting.

However, the unresolved conflicts also were apparent. Netanyahu raised the issue of the attacks on Israelis in the West Bank this week. Abbas called on Israel to end all settlement activity.

"In every conflict, the closer the sides have gotten to an agreement, the more the peace spoilers started coming out of the woodwork," said Professor Tamar Hermann, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a research group. "But this is a transitional phase and if we give in to it, we will miss the opportunity."

The settlement construction issue could offer the first glimpse of how committed both sides are to talks. Netanyahu has resisted Palestinian demands to extend the freeze, whereas Abbas has threatened to quit talks unless the freeze continues. Both men are under tremendous domestic pressure to stick to their positions and equally strong pressure from the U.S. and international community to bend.

Analysts have said that the two sides need to find a way to finesse the issue in coming weeks so they can move on to other, equally weighty topics.

Netanyahu's position will demonstrate how serious his intentions are, wrote Eitan Haber, Israeli analyst and former advisor to assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the Ynet news site Thursday. "Americans and Palestinians will view the freeze as a test case."

At the same time, if Netanyahu refuses to budge, Abbas will face a similar dilemma over whether to reverse his stance or abandon what many experts believe could be the last round of negotiations for some time.

The attacks against Israeli settlers upped the ante for both men.

Netanyahu rejected immediate calls for him to quit the talks and return home.

David Wilder, spokesman of the Jewish Community of Hebron, blasted the U.S.-brokered peace process as an attempt to "sink Israel.... These attacks cannot continue, and the only way to stop them is to stop acquiescing to Obama and the terrorists who want to destroy us."

The killings also hardened the resolve of many Israelis against pressure to extend the construction moratorium, a move they argue could now be seen as rewarding terrorism.

For Abbas, the killings meant being forced onto the defensive just as negotiations began. They bolstered Netanyahu's demand that talks begin on the issue of security, rather than borders or settlements, which are Palestinian priorities.

Hamas leaders promised the violence would only continue, calling the first two attacks the start of a "series of operations" to be carried out by its militant wing.

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