Hebron to be first test of peace In West Bank city, Netanyahu must pick which pledges to keep

June 04, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HEBRON, West Bank -- This city where neighbors glare in hate and the stones are stained with blood will be the first test of the Middle East peace process under Israel's new prime minister.

In Hebron, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister-elect, faces an immediate choice. He can keep Israel's promises to the Palestinians. Or he can keep his campaign promises to supporters of his party, the Likud. But not both.

"He's under the eyes of the world now," mused Mustafa Natshe, the mayor of Hebron. "Now, is he going to be responsible, or continue with the slogans of the campaign?"

In negotiations with the Palestinian authority, Israel pledged to redeploy its troops from most of Hebron, the last of eight cities in the West Bank to be turned over to Palestinian control. Prime Minister Shimon Peres delayed the scheduled March 28 withdrawal until after the Israeli elections, fearing violence between Jewish and Arab extremists.

Peres, after Netanyahu defeated him in elections last week, said he would leave the withdrawal to the next government. He urged Netanyahu to go forward with it.

But Netanyahu opposed withdrawal from Hebron in his campaign, contradicting another campaign pledge to abide by agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States is anxious for Netanyahu to continue the peace process and withdraw troops from the city. But there are few people betting that he will do so.

This is a tense place, and a decision not to withdraw could bring renewed violence by frustrated Palestinians or emboldened Israelis. Hebron youths threw stones at Israeli soldiers yesterday, and witnesses told news agencies that the soldiers punched doctors and patients in a clinic during the pursuit.

"There will come a day when we will live in peace. But this isn't it," said Hafez Abu Sneneh, a shoe salesman in the Hebron market. "Netanyahu will not redeploy. The Likud doesn't want peace."

Noam Arnon agrees that there will be no withdrawal. The Jewish settler was in a good mood after Netanyahu's victory. He loitered under shade trees outside the looming stone walls of the ancient Cave of the Patriarchs, where both Jews and Muslims worship at the places that tradition says is the tomb Abraham, their ancestor.

The 400 Jewish settlers who live in downtown Hebron -- heavily guarded by 800 soldiers -- feel they have just dodged a political bullet. They celebrated the success of the Likud, certain that it means a reprieve from the army's withdrawal.

"It's very clear that the majority of the Jewish people said that they don't want to lose part of their Jewish history by leaving Hebron," said Arnon, a leader of the settlers. "Hebron was a message to the people, and it was absorbed."

Now, he said, settlers plan to expand their Hebron presence by 1,000 more Jews -- what Arnon called "the natural growth of Hebron." The plan is intended to make sure another change of government will find too many Jewish settlers to evict.

Around the tiny group of Jewish settlers is a city of about 150,000 Palestinians. On the northern edge of Hebron is Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement of about 6,000 residents, who also stake their claim to the city.

The claims of both sides are colored by past violence. The Jewish settlers constantly evoke a 1929 massacre of more than 60 Jews by the Arab residents. It is not a subtle reminder; they have erected a large sign in central Hebron proclaiming: "This market was built on the land of Jewish people, stolen by Arabs after the 1929 massacre."

The Arabs look back to February 1994. A U.S.-born settler from Kiryat Arba, Baruch Goldstein, walked into the Cave of the Patriarchs at a dawn Muslim prayer and opened fire with an automatic weapon, killing 29 worshipers. The Palestinians do not forget that Kiryat Arba residents have made a memorial of Goldstein's grave.

"There is nothing good that goes between the settlers and the Arabs," said Adras Zahadhi, a Palestinian watching Israeli soldiers file past on patrol -- wary, weapons at the ready, as though on a battlefield. "The settlers want to kill the Arabs, and the Arabs want to kill the settlers."

The grinding conflict has hurt the Palestinians. Curfews and closures imposed by Israel have cut off the city from jobs and trade in Israel. They have also impoverished many of the surrounding villages, which in turn have emptied the once-bustling Hebron market.

"If they would end the closure, the market could get back its business, and we would be all right," said a glum Azmi Abu Ghalyoum. He said his narrow market stall -- filled with toys, cheap kitchen utensils and blankets -- used to bring him several hundred dollars a day. Now he cannot pay for the tea he drinks while waiting in vain for customers.

It rankles the Palestinians that the consequences of the 1994 massacre include the presence of more Israeli troops and a larger number of roadblocks.

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