Hebron Arabs live with fear in wake of massacre

June 26, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

HEBRON, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- At the center of a town hardened by centuries of war and massacre, shopkeeper Mohammed al Halaby takes a moment out of a busy morning to illustrate the local standards for neighborly behavior.

He calls for his 4-year-old son, Zakaria, whose large brown eyes seem to offer only hope and innocence.

"Do you like the Jews?" Mr. Halaby asks gently.

"No," the boy says, frowning.

"Why?" the father asks.

"Because they throw stones at me."

"From where?"

"From their windows."

That would be the family of Israeli settlers next door, protected by coils of barbed wire and a soldier's post on a nearby rooftop.

Zakaria's young hatred has also been nurtured by what he's heard of another settler, Baruch Goldstein, who walked into a Hebron mosque Feb. 25 and opened fire with a machine gun, killing 30 worshipers.

Four months later, with an Israeli government commission due to report today its findings on the massacre, Hebron is still a great smudge of gloom on the maps of Middle East peacemakers.

Even as hope stirs in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian Arabs are taking their first steps toward self-rule, Hebron remains locked in a cycle of curfew, closure and violence.

The Arab friends and neighbors of Baruch Goldstein's victims, who erupted in angry rioting after the massacre, still are not allowed to travel to jobs in Israel. They face checkpoints and searches when moving through town. Soldiers occasionally cordon off entire neighborhoods, and in a search for fundamentalist Islamic activists in late March, the army destroyed three homes with rocket fire and anti-tank weapons.

Goldstein's neighbors, and other Israeli settlers living in and around Hebron, come and go as they please, as they have since a few days after the killings. They still carry automatic weapons, legally and openly, as he did, saying they must do so to protect themselves.

Little change for settlers

The settlers have little to say about such things. The Halabys' Israeli neighbors would not answer a reporter's questions.

But others acknowledge that life has changed little for them since the Goldstein massacre.

"Freedom of movement has not changed," says Elyakim Haetzni, a pro-settlement activist who lives in Kiryat Arba, the modern Jewish settlement outside Hebron. "Life has returned to normal, if you can call life during the 'intifada' [Palestinian uprising] normal. And from what I hear from settlers in the middle of Hebron, it is quite the same there also. Although there are many more police and soldiers, I must say."

Ghasan Shahin, an Arab who runs a small electronics shop in the center of town, says, "We are still being punished for what he [Goldstein] did. The whole economy is paralyzed by the closure. VTC Every day is becoming worse. People are spending their savings now, and when they spend they are only buying what they need."

Mr. Ghasan points into the street, where people stroll among falafel vendors, heaps of bananas and scurrying boys who hawk steaming mint tea from golden trays.

"When there is really good business," Mr. Ghasan says, "you cannot even move out there. I would not even have been able to speak with you. But you see how it is. You have been here 10 minutes, and no one has even come in."

The statistics reinforce Mr. Ghasan's seat-of-the-pants analysis.

Abdel Alim Dana, a teacher at the local Polytechnic University, estimates that millions of dollars in wages have been lost by the closure of the city, and 106 businesses have been shut down in the city center as the army has sealed off troublesome neighborhoods.

Schools have been disrupted. Akram al Nuhail, 17, a high school student, is still catching up in his studies after his school was closed for more than a month during the unrest in the wake of the massacre.

A dangerous distraction

Even now that he's back in class, he says, the daily presence of Israeli soldiers is a dangerous distraction.

"At our break time, they always send a unit to the doors of the school, and when we come out, they do things to attract our attention," he says. "They turn on their sirens, or use their loudspeakers to shout obscenities. The students throw stones. This usually leads to confrontations, and the soldiers of course shoot back, with rubber bullets or sometimes with live ammunition."

But the economic woes, the curfews and even the aggressive tactics of the soldiers are only side issues to most Arabs in Hebron. The real source of their problems, they say, is the settlers.

A 'golden cage'?

"Even if they [the Israeli government] put us in a golden cage and fed us with the best food and gave us all we needed, we still would not be happy about it," says Khader al Owaiwi, who runs a children's clothing shop.

"We would still not be free, and we would not feel secure as long as the settlers are here."

Many Israeli settlements on the West Bank are on the outskirts of Arab towns. Here they are separated by buffer zones of flags hanging from windows or Stars of David spray-painted on the walls.

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