B'Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) released a report yesterday citing harassment by Jewish settlers for the exodus of some 400 Palestinians from the center of Hebron over the past three years.

"Settler violence and the lack of law enforcement on settlers, the ongoing curfew and severe restrictions on movement in the area that once was the commercial center of Hebron, and violence against Palestinians by members of the security forces have caused Palestinian families to pack up and leave the area," the report charges.

About 2,000 merchants have closed businesses in the downtown sector in the same period, according to the B'Tselem report, entitled "Settlements Cause Mass Departure of Palestinians."

According to the report, "Israel has regularly disregarded its obligation to protect the welfare and safety of these Palestinians. Rather, the security forces have invested most of their efforts in protecting the settlers, while grossly violating the human rights of the local Palestinian residents."

The report notes that 11 settlers in Hebron and neighboring Kiryat Arba have been killed by Palestinians since the outbreak of the intifada, including Shalhevet Pas, a ten-month old infant killed by Palestinian sniper fire.

"There have also been incidents in which Palestinians shot and wounded settlers and hurled petrol bombs and stones at them," the report says. The report concludes, however, with a recommendation that the Jewish settlement in Hebron be dismantled.

Settler spokesman Yoshua Mor-Yosef said settlers would be delighted if all the Palestinians were to move out of downtown Hebron. "We should be happy if 100 percent would leave," he said. "They are the ones causing all the trouble."

About 500 settlers, considered among the most militant in the West Bank, live in the city of 130,000 Palestinians. The settlers live in several enclaves in the downtown sector, the only Jewish settlement located in the heart of an Arab city in the West Bank. About 35,000 Palestinians live in the downtown area.

B'Tselem said 43 percent of Palestinian residents of the three main streets of the Hebron "casbah" marketplace - some 400 people - have left their homes since October 2000. In addition, three schools in which 1,835 pupils studied were taken over by the IDF and closed.

The group also said Palestinians in downtown Hebron have been under curfew for at least half of the past year.