Netanyahu supports settlers after Hebron rabbis murder

JERUSALEM — Following the murder of a prominent Hebron area rabbi, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the city's Jews this week that construction will begin shortly in nearby Tel Rumeida.

He spoke Tuesday during a condolence visit to the family of the Rabbi Shlomo Ra'anan, who was stabbed to death by terrorists in his Tel Rumeida home on Thursday of last week.

The murder and the Israeli government's reaction have been heating up the already volatile West Bank city.

Weekend clashes between settlers and Palestinians prompted several Israeli cabinet ministers to call for a total suspension of talks with the Palestinian Authority. In addition, settlers verbally assaulted Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and President Ezer Weizman when they visited the city on Sunday.

As a result of their incidents, Netanyahu's visit was a surprise to many.

Seated before Ra'anan's widow, Chaya, Netanyahu listened to her pleas to discontinue the Oslo process. The prime minister said he couldn't do so.

"With all my reservations regarding Oslo, I cannot stop the process since I was elected on the basis of a commitment to fulfill these agreements," he told her.

The visit marked the first time Netanyahu had come to Hebron since his election. Accompanied by his wife, Sara, his entourage passed by the Machpelah Cave before continuing up the hill to the mobile homes perched on the hilltop overlooking the city.

For three hours on Tuesday afternoon, the Israel Defense Force lifted the curfew imposed on Palestinians living in the sector of Hebron under Israeli control, allowing residents to buy food. The curfew was imposed after the attack on Ra'anan.

Shortly after the curfew was lifted, a group of settlers reportedly stoned and shouted at Palestinian passersby. Soldiers detained a woman settler and escorted Palestinians to safety, while trying to push back about 30 settlers.

Despite a military closure on the entire city and the curfew, Lt. Peter Lerner said, some 6,000 Palestinian workers who had permits were permitted to enter Israel to work on two days this week.

The 63-year-old Ra'anan was the grandson of Israel's first chief rabbi, Avraham Yitzhak Kook, who helped inspire the modern-day settlers movement.

Ra'anan and his wife moved to Tel Rumeida six years ago. Tel Rumeida is a secluded Jewish neighborhood located on a hill that overlooks the center of Hebron and its Jewish quarter.

Although the local Jewish community had bought the land in the 19th century, it wasn't until 1984 that the Israeli government allowed a limited Jewish presence at the site.

Since then, the government had refrained from authorizing any expansion of the two-acre site, where seven families live in mobile homes.

Chaya Ra'anan, who has three grown children, described herself as a "woman whose world had collapsed around her."

The only thing that would give her strength to continue, she said, is to ensure that her husband was not murdered for nothing.

Speaking to reporters outside Ra'anan's mobile home, Netanyahu said, "Look at how these people are living. The walls are made of plaster and are so thin you can put your fist through them. In the summer the hot sun beats down and in the winter the rain pours in."

Netanyahu announced that approval for permanent homes had been given and that construction will begin soon.

The Israeli government has called on Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to condemn the murder of Ra'anan. Arafat, however, has refused to condemn the recent murders of settlers.

Meanwhile Arafat said the shoring up of the Tel Rumeida compound is "completely against what has been agreed upon."

Arafat was back in Gaza this week after attending ceremonies in Norway to mark the fifth anniversary of the Oslo Accords.

Israeli security experts believe Hamas was behind Ra'anan's death. The army is now reportedly planning to erect fences around 20 settlements in wake of assessments that Hamas is planning more attacks.

Knesset member Ran Cohen of left-wing Meretz warned that Netanyahu's agreement to allow construction would only encourage violence.

A statement from the Palestinian Legislative Council called on the Palestine Liberation Organization to raise the Hebron issue at the next United Nations Security Council session and discuss the "collective punishment" and the "brutal crimes" carried out by the settlers.