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Both sides drift apart on 'imminent' Hebron deal

map January 4, 1997
Web posted at: 6:20 p.m. EST (2320 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- An agreement on the disputed West Bank city of Hebron appeared to unravel as mutual recriminations on both sides escalated despite efforts by a U.S. peace mediator to sustain the talks.

Israel's refusal to commit itself to a timetable for further West Bank withdrawals after Hebron was holding up a deal, Palestinian officials said.

"Israel must understand that Hebron is not the only remaining issue for us," Palestinian negotiator Jamil Tarafi said.

But Israeli officials blamed the delay on what they say are new demands by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Many fear the Palestinian leader may want to exploit a shooting incident last Wednesday in which an off-duty Israeli solder fired into a Hebron vegetable market, wounding five Palestinians.

"An agreement has been ready for over two months now and throughout this time the Palestinian Authority has tried to stall and delay," said David Bar-Illan, top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ross and Arafat

After meeting separately with both Arafat and Netanyahu on Saturday, U.S. envoy Dennis Ross described a Hebron deal as "close," but added that obstacles remain.

"You have to resolve everything to have an agreement," Ross said.

Israel was to have redeployed its troops in Hebron some 10 months ago under a 1995 interim accord but violence and security concerns have held it up.

Several hundred Jewish settlers live in Hebron amid about 100,000 Palestinians.


Israel also has missed a September dateline for the first of three pullbacks from rural areas of the West Bank. If Ross again fails to clinch a Hebron deal, the U.S. could choose to shift its diplomatic efforts to its home court.

Both Netanyahu and Arafat have received invitations from President Clinton to visit Washington separately early in the new year, although no precise dates have been set, spokesmen for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders said.

In Hebron Saturday, dozens of Jewish seminary students bused into the volatile West Bank town for the Sabbath danced in the streets as they headed to prayers.

About 100 Palestinians, staking their claim to the West Bank, tried to plant trees near a Jewish settlement south of Hebron Saturday but were stopped by Israeli soldiers, Arab witnesses said.

"Most of the essential points we have not resolved," said a senior Palestinian official, who did not want to be identified.

Asked if an accord was far off, the official responded: "Yes."

Reuters contributed to this report.


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