Jewish settlers clashed with authorities who blocked them from occupying three empty houses in Hebron on Wednesday as negotiators struggled to finalize an Israeli withdrawal from the volatile city.
U.S. envoy Dennis Ross was returning to Washington to give President Clinton a “positive report” on the week’s talks. Ross said he would return by Monday and “I hope and expect that we will conclude an agreement shortly thereafter.”
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s top deputy said a pullout agreement was possible within a week, but Mahmoud Abbas warned that “actions” by Jewish settlers could torpedo the deal.
David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, said they occupied the houses to show Israel’s government that “the situation is serious and we’re serious.”
The settlers claim their security will be at risk if the city is turned over to Palestinian control.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to prevent implementation of the agreement,” he said.
Police and soldiers evicted the settlers and chased them across the rooftops of the city’s crowded casbah. One settler was slightly injured and was taken away in an ambulance. Police detained 17 settlers, but had released all but two by evening.
Separately, five Palestinians were arrested after three Molotov cocktails were thrown at army positions in downtown Hebron. No one was hurt.
Hebron is swarming with Israeli troops who are trying to maintain calm as negotiators try to seal an agreement on the nine-month-overdue troop withdrawal, which will cede most of the city to Palestinian control.
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met all day in Jerusalem after Tuesday’s one-on-one talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arafat provided momentum but fell short of an agreement.
The talks adjourned Wednesday evening and were to resume today.
A deal on Hebron - the last West Bank city under Israeli control - would be the first major development in the peace process since Netanyahu was elected in May.
Dore Gold, Netanyahu’s top foreign policy adviser, said there was “a determination by both sides to complete these negotiations.”
The Palestinian negotiators said remaining issues included details of a buffer zone between the area in Hebron that will remain under Israeli control and the rest of the city, to be patrolled by Palestinian police.
The Israeli-controlled area is to include the scattered Jewish enclaves where 500 Jewish settlers live - as well as surrounding neighborhoods that are home to at least 15,000 Palestinians. About 130,000 Palestinians live in the city.
In a key concession, Israel agreed Tuesday to drop a demand that the agreement explicitly state that Israeli troops have the right to pursue Arab suspects into Palestinian-controlled areas of Hebron, said a senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Israel was to have pulled out of Hebron in March, but postponed the move after a series of suicide bombings in Israel. Netanyahu delayed the withdrawal further in hopes of improving security for the settlers.
The settlers say some of the empty houses they occupied Wednesday belonged to the city’s former Jewish community, which was evacuated by British authorities after 67 Jews were killed in Arab riots in 1929.
In a sign of the high anxiety in Hebron, six Palestinian workers restoring houses near the Jewish Avraham Avinu compound were arrested, police spokesman Boaz Goldberg said. He said it was illegal to build so close to the Jewish areas.
Israel TV reported that several right-wing rabbis signed a document calling on Jews not to cooperate with the Hebron pullout plan because abandoning parts of the biblical Land of Israel was against Jewish law.