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ISRAEL UNLIKELY TO PULL TROOPS FROM HEBRON BEFORE ELECTIONS

Israeli troops will not pull back from the West Bank town of Hebron until after Israel's May 29 elections, the foreign minister suggested Thursday.

And the Jerusalem Post newspaper, citing an unidentified diplomatic source, reported Thursday that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had informed the United States that he did not expect Israeli troops to redeploy in the city before the elections.Prime Minister Shimon Peres is running a tight race with right-wing challenger Benjamin Netan-ya-hu, and there is concern in the Peres camp that a troop pullback in volatile Hebron could hurt him among security-minded swing voters.

The prime minister was to meet Friday with senior security officials to discuss a timetable for the Hebron redeployment, a provision of Israel's peace accords with the Palestinians.

Hebron, the last West Bank town under Israeli occupation, is home to 94,000 Palestinians and 450 Jewish settlers.

Peres has promised to redeploy Israeli troops in the sacred West Bank city so that they protect only Jewish settlements and are no longer mixed in with Arab residents.

On Wednesday, a Palestinian stabbed and seriously wounded a 72-year-old Jewish settler in Hebron's downtown market. Dozens of angry settlers overturned vegetable stalls in response and chanted "Death to the Arabs."

Foreign Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that the withdrawal will probably be gradual.

"There are many stages along the way," Barak said on Israel radio. "Because the timing is very sensitive, I wouldn't grieve if it (redeployment) would take place after the elections."

He did not say when the redeployment would start.