JERUSALEM — As the spotlight moved this week to Israel's plans for an army redeployment in Hebron, a 72-year-old rabbi was seriously wounded in a stabbing attack in the West Bank town.
The attack sparked questions about the safety of Jewish residents there after an army pullback.
The incident occurred Wednesday as the Knesset convened for a special session called by opposition members to discuss the wisdom of the redeployment.
Rabbi Nissim Gudai, who is from Kiryat Arba, was in Hebron's Arab vegetable market when he was stabbed in the back by a Palestinian assailant who then fled.
Gudai, with the knife still protruding from his back, was taken to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where his condition was described as serious but not life threatening.
Israeli security forces closed the area after the incident and detained several Palestinians. A number of Jewish settlers overturned vegetable carts in protest of the attack.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres has promised to go ahead with the handover of about 85 percent of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule, with the Israeli army staying in the Jewish settlements.
The Israeli army also plans to remain stationed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews and Arabs alike.
The redeployment was to have taken place in late March but was delayed by Israel after a series of Hamas suicide bombings earlier that month and in late February.
Peres said Wednesday that the timing of the redeployment would be taken up by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
"They will have to discuss the stages and the dates to carry out this decision," Peres told reporters in Paris, where he was holding talks with French President Jacques Chirac on his return from a four-day trip to the United States.
Peres' comments appeared to throw cold water on recent reports that the move could take place as early as this weekend.
In the Knesset on Wednesday, Likud members accused the government of trying to push through the redeployment before the May 29 general elections.
"This issue was not an issue in the previous election campaign," said Moshe Katsav, Likud faction chairman. "The best thing is to give the Israeli population the right to decide in this crucial issue."
Internal Security Minister Moshe Shahal countered that Israel was obliged to honor its agreements with the Palestinians.
Outside the Knesset, several hundred Kiryat Arba and Hebron residents protested the planned redeployment..
Visiting Hebron on Tuesday, hardline Likud Knesset member Ariel Sharon said the town should be allowed some level of self-rule, but Israel should have overall responsibility for security there.
On Monday, the Jewish community of Hebron held a day of fasting and prayer, calling for the redeployment not to take place.
Settlers warned that the troop pullback from the town, where Jewish and Arab residents live in close proximity to each other, would end in a bloodbath.
Hebron is the seventh and final town to come under Palestinian self-rule under the terms of the Interim Agreement signed in September in Washington. With some 400 settlers living among 120,000 Palestinians, Hebron presents the most formidable security challenge of all the West Bank Arab population centers.