Pressure intensified within the Israeli government Sunday to clear Jewish settlers out of the West Bank town of Hebron, where worshiping Palestinians were massacred at a mosque Feb.
Seven of the 15 members at the weekly Cabinet meeting reportedly spoke out against keeping the Hebron enclaves, where some 400 militant Jews live among more than 70,000 Arabs.
Only two opposed removing the settlers.
"So long as they are still there, I believe the thing itself creates friction and draws fire," said Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former West Bank army commander, explaining why he wants to end the Jewish presence in Hebron.
No decision was made. The Cabinet did vote to order the attorney general to charge anyone who praises the mosque massacre with incitement, punishable with several years in prison.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin opposes dismantling any of the 144 settlements in the occupied territories, where some 120,000 Jews live alongside 1.8-million Palestinians.
Rabin says tinkering with settlements now will ignite domestic divisiveness that will disrupt peace talks with the Palestinians even more.
Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet, who opposes any change in the status quo, warned that it would mean reopening the outline agreement on Palestinian self-rule that Israel and the PLO signed in September.
"If we evacuate Hebron, then why not other places?" Shetreet said. "There are many places where the friction between Arabs and Jews is great."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is trying to arrange a meeting with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, possibly this week, through Egyptian intermediaries in an effort to revive direct contacts with the Palestinians.
Arafat met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the PLO's dispute with Israel. Arafat wants international protection for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
The Israeli Cabinet ministers were reportedly told by the West Bank commander, Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, that 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers were needed to protect the Jews in Hebron.
Leaders of the Jewish settlers threatened to resist any attempt to uproot the Hebron colony.
"We won't act with violence, but we'll fill the prisons," Meir Indoor, head of Victims Against Terror, was quoted as saying by Israel's Itim news agency.
Indoor was referring to a planned civil-disobedience campaign.
_ Information from the New York Times, Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.