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Settlers, Cabinet members try to scuttle Hebron deal

U.S.-led talks drag on

January 3, 1997
Web posted at: 11:50 a.m. EST (1650 GMT)

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BEIT EL, West Bank (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced pressure on two fronts Friday aimed at scuttling an emerging deal on extending Palestinian self-rule to the West Bank town of Hebron.

In defiance of their government, Jewish settlers from Beit El -- near Palestinian-ruled Ramallah -- moved seven mobile homes onto Artis Hill in the occupied West Bank and said they were going to build a thousand new homes outside their existing settlement.

"This is a protest action," said Aharon Domb, spokesman for the Jewish settler umbrella group Yesha.

Police and soldiers fanned out near the hill, but the settlers left voluntarily Friday afternoon. Israel army radio said the trailers would be removed Sunday. In exchange, settler leaders were to meet with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai to discuss further construction.

Also Friday, three more Netanyahu Cabinet ministers said they might not vote for the yet-to-be-finalized Hebron agreement.

The rebellion of the hard-liners came as Palestinian negotiators said that despite U.S. pressure, they would not sign the Hebron deal until Israel commits to a September 1997 deadline for withdrawing its troops from most of the West Bank. Israel has said it will not do so.

Terrorist warning

In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak raised another new obstacle in the Hebron talks Friday, saying Arabs and Muslims must have a role in protecting the city's Muslim shrine.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs (known to Muslims as the Shrine of Ibrahim) is in an area of Hebron which is to remain under Israeli control after a troop pullback.

Meantime, the United States said on Thursday it had received threats of increased terrorist attacks over the next two weeks in Israel and the West Bank and warned Americans there to exercise caution.

Pro and con reaction to protest

Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the mobile home protest, carried out under cover of darkness.

In Gaza City, Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh demanded that Israel immediately remove the settlers, saying their "action seriously threatens the peace process."

The settlers said their protest was a response to Palestinians killing a Jewish mother and her son last month. They also said it was their right to build anywhere within the borders of biblical Israel.

In addition to those in the seven mobile homes, about 200 settlers gathered at the site near Ramallah.

Hebron deal near or not?

As U.S.-mediated Hebron talks drag on, at least seven senior ministers have now told Netanyahu they will not support his peace agreement with the Palestinians.

President Clinton's Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, has been trying to arrange a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat . But at a Thursday night meeting, Ross and Arafat were unable to accomplish that.

Israel radio said Ross hinted he would return to Washington if the two sides didn't budge soon.

They may vote no

One of Netanyahu's strongest supporters, Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, said Thursday night that he too would vote against a Hebron deal if Netanyahu commits to a timetable for a troop withdrawal from West Bank rural areas.

Israel radio said two ministers of the religious Shas Party who initially supported the agreement now were considering abstaining or voting no.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers and Reuters contributed to this report.


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