News Analysis: Peres seeking to defuse the simmering tensions in Hebron

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JERUSALEM — Nothing is new under the Hebron sun. The City of the Patriarchs, the first capital of King David, remains in Jewish hands — at least until Israel's elections are over.

The last thing that Prime Minister Shimon Peres needs before the May 29 national elections is a bloodbath in Hebron.

With this fearful possibility in mind, Peres has announced that the planned Israeli troop redeployment in the West Bank town would again be postponed.

The handover of 85 percent of Hebron to Palestinian control was last scheduled to occur in March but was delayed after a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

After the Palestine National Council voted last week to strike the anti-Israel clauses from its charter, Palestinians in Hebron were hopeful that Israel would finally move its troops.

While Israel Defense Force officers said the redeployment could be accomplished in a matter of hours and senior Labor Party leaders speculated that the move would take place before the May 29 elections, Peres announced that the status quo would remain at least until election day.

Despite the situation in Hebron, the first round of the critical final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians were held Sunday and Monday in Taba, Egypt. The talks, which are slated to resume after the elections, will address the thorny issues of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood.

The withdrawal of Israeli troops last year from other West Bank cities was relatively smooth.

But none of those areas carried the symbolic weight of Hebron, where some 400 Jewish settlers live in the heart of a Muslim population of approximately 120,000.

The simmering tensions in Hebron that often explode into violence is what makes the redeployment so potentially difficult.

According to the Bible, Hebron represents the first Jewish foothold in the Land of Israel, accomplished when Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to serve as a tomb for his wife Sarah.

Hebron is also the cradle of the modern Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank.

It was here that a group of settlers, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, moved shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War with the tacit approval of the Labor government.

The settlers remember all too well how members of Hebron's Jewish population were massacred in 1929, and they promise not to quit the City of the Patriarchs — no matter what.

Given the weight of history and religious belief, the Hebron settlers are more hardcore in their ideology than most of their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Take, for example, the case of Baruch Marzel, a former leader of the now-outlawed, militantly anti-Arab Kach movement.

Marzel, a resident of the tiny Hebron settlement of Tel Rumeida, located on a hill opposite the Tomb of the Patriarchs, posted the sticker "Shalom Chaver" on the wall of his home.

The motto has become associated with the late Yitzhak Rabin, but the picture Marzel placed beneath the sticker was not that of the late prime minister, but rather of Dr. Baruch Goldstein.

It was in February 1994 in Hebron that Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs before he was killed by an angry Arab crowd.

Many of the Hebron settlers revere Goldstein as a Jewish martyr, and his grave in nearby Kiryat Arba continues to attract scores of pilgrims.

This week, the settlers warned that any Israeli troop movements in Hebron would not go unanswered.

This is not like any other West Bank town, they warn; this is the heart of Eretz Yisrael.

"There is a serious concern that if the Jews are pushed to the wall, there will be more Goldsteins in the region," said Marzel.

When the army recommended that Jews stay out of the alleys of the Arab market, the settlers decided to increase their shopping there.

Last week a Palestinian stabbed and wounded 72-year-old Rabbi Nissim Gudai in the heart of the Arab market.

The settlers have meanwhile promised to take over 10 empty buildings — some of them within the Arab market — and to recruit 100 new settlers to join them.

"One of the buildings in town is the Lipkin House," said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the settlers.

"This is the house which was built by the great-grandfather of [IDF] Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Rabbi Yitzhak Lipkin, around 1850."

Arnon challenged Shahak to evacuate Jews from the house.

Meanwhile, Peres, in a tight contest with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, is being criticized by the left and the right over the redeployment.

Labor's coalition partner Meretz charges that Peres is not living up to promises to the Palestinians.

The Likud accuses Peres of planning to abandon the Jews in Hebron and religious party leaders have urged Peres to postpone the redeployment.

In a meeting Monday with ultra-religious rabbis, Peres said the Israeli army would ensure the safety of the settlers in Hebron.

He also said that Israel would, under any future arrangement, retain control over Judaism's three holiest sites — Jerusalem, Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Curiously, the only person silent on the issue of Hebron, one who would have been expected to complain loudly, was Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Arafat would have liked to prove to his Hamas rivals that his cooperation with Israel serves Palestinian interests better than suicide bombings.

But, like Peres, Arafat fears that the situation in Hebron could get out of hand, that the Palestinian police would lose control — and that Netanyahu would be the main beneficiary of the chaos.