Hebron is first big test for hard-line Netanyahu Will he renege on accord to transfer West Bank city to Palestinian authority?

July 14, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HEBRON, West Bank -- The boys of Hebron fly their kites amid the stones of the dead.

In the cemetery of this troubled West Bank city, Antar Bardewi tugs on the string of a kite he has fashioned from a plastic bag, hand-lashed sticks and a tail of tattered rags. He leaps from one burial crypt to the next, coaxing the stubborn kite higher into the sky. He is a young man of 15 amusing himself with a child's toy.

Beyond the cemetery wall, other young men -- some not much older than Antar -- lean into the windows of cars and ask the Palestinian drivers for their papers. Israeli soldiers, they carry rifles and wear protective vests, despite the blistering heat. Above their heads a ghost moon rises amid the scruffy kites of Hebron.

Scenes of everyday life belie an undercurrent of tension that runs through the hilly city whose Arabic name, Al-Khalil, means "the friend." Hebron has become the symbol of a stalled peace process, a place where Arab and Jew share little common ground apart from the streets.

Opposed to withdrawal

Now it is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's problem. During his campaign he said he opposed withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank town. And during his first visit to Washington last week, the newly elected hard-line prime minister indicated he won't be pushed around on the thorny issue.

Israel is overdue in its commitment to remove its troops from Hebron, the last West Bank city designated under Israel's peace agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization to come under control of the Palestinian authority.

The issue has become larger than the place, for it could develop into the first real test of Netanyahu's treatment of the peace process, with regional consequences.

The 150,000 Arab residents of Hebron are directly concerned. But a core group of about 400 fervent Jewish settlers have staked their own claim to the city, traditionally revered as the burial place of the Patriarch Abraham, who is honored by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike.

"Hebron will be for the Jewish people forever and ever," reads one message spray painted on a wall. The Jews living in the city of Hebron -- and some 6,000 more in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba -- want the full force of Israeli soldiers who now protect their enclaves to remain.

"In Hebron there is a Berlin wall," says Beate Zilversmith, an Israeli peace activist who toured the city for the first time recently to support withdrawal of troops.

Hebron is a city divided as much by images as barricades. A 70-year-old Muslim in white robe and checkered Arab headdress passes through a metal detector before he enters the Cave of the Patriarchs to pray; the same holds true for those who worship at the synagogue there.

Palestinian women in head scarves and traditional long-sleeved gowns shop for toothpaste or camel meat or dried yogurt in the souk, the maze-like Arab market.

From the balcony of Beit Hadassah, an old Jewish building surrounded by barbed wire in the middle of the city, young Jewish girls, ice pops in hand, peer down at the shoppers below.

Palestinian boys negotiate the crowds while carrying buckets from a soup kitchen to their waiting families. On a quiet street above the market, a settler woman from Beit Hadassah offers visitors green plums and apple juice.

Guarded by Israeli troops

This same street is barricaded at either end with Israeli soldiers standing guard, reminders of the abiding conflict.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group with a strong presence in Hebron, has renewed calls for a Palestinian uprising similar to the stone-throwing violence of the intifada, which began in 1987.

In the past, settlers have been accosted and sometimes murdered on Hebron streets, and they, in turn, have overturned vegetable stands or sprayed graffiti on merchant stalls in the Arab market. In 1994, an American-born settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Muslims.

The settlers -- and the prime minister -- speak of another massacre. In 1929, Arabs murdered more than 60 Jewish residents, wiping out a community that was millenniums old.

Oyvind Tuvnes, a Norwegian policeman, can feel the tension. He is a member of an international observation team that returned to Hebron in March when former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres delayed the redeployment, after terrorist bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv killed scores of Israelis.

On several recent Fridays, bottles have been hurled at Israeli soldiers, says Tuvnes. "Any day something can happen."

Across town, Imran O. Tamimi sits in his office at the Hebron University Graduate Union. A college development director who attended Harvard, Tamimi considers himself an optimist when it comes to the future of Hebron.

Abraham a shared father

"We can build a good future," he says between sips of Turkish coffee. "Our father is the same. Abraham is the father of Arabs and Jews. We must know how to live together in peace and coexist."

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