Palestinian homeowners angry in Hebron

Israeli army occupation of houses curbs mobility, ability to earn living

War On Terrorism : The World

October 11, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HEBRON, West Bank - Mohammed Jabari's spacious house perched high on a cliff offers such a majestic view that in better times, photographers would pay him to stand on his roof and snap pictures of the city nestled below in the Judean hills.

But these are not better times.

For the past month, the Palestinian's roof has been turned into a fortified military post by the Israeli army. Sandbags block access to the clothesline. A machine gun is propped on the rooftop water tank. The blue and white Israeli flag flutters above.

"We are not living," said Jabari, 48. "But what can we do? The soldiers came and said they had orders to take the house. Who can say no?"

The Jabari house is one of 15 Palestinian homes commandeered by Israeli forces. Most were taken Friday when the army staged its largest incursion to date into autonomous Palestinian territory in the yearlong conflict. Backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, infantry units swept into two hilltop communities overlooking Hebron, from where Palestinian militants fire at the small Jewish settlements in the heart of this biblical city.

Five Palestinians were killed in the initial battles. Four more have died in subsequent skirmishes. Soldiers used Jabari's rooftop deck as a firing post; the vibrations from the heavy machine gun shook pictures off walls and were so loud that his 6-month-old daughter seemed to cower in her crib.

Now, when Jabari peers from his living room window, he faces tanks on the opposite hills and sees his neighbors' rooftops dotted with camouflage netting, gun turrets and Israeli flags. Communities that last week were under Palestinian control are locked down under curfew and subject to Israeli military rule.

"It's not fair," said Jabari, an out-of-work father of 13. "One person goes on his own and shoots a Jewish settler and they punish everybody. If this is a war, it's not a fair war."

Israeli officials say the persistent shootings at Jewish settlers - firing that seriously wounded two women praying last week during the holiday of Succoth - made the soldiers' action necessary. They dubbed the operation "Towers of Strength."

"We were forced to seize these neighborhoods," said Brig. Gen. Jerry Yitzhak. "We will do everything to provide our citizens with the best protection."

Hebron is a divided city. About 400 Jewish settlers are surrounded by 120,000 Palestinians. It is revered by Jews and Muslims as the place where the prophet Abraham is buried.

The city has been a battleground for decades. In 1929, Palestinians killed 67 Jews here; in 1994, a Jewish settler killed 29 Palestinians when he opened fire on Muslim worshippers at a mosque. Three years later, Israel formally turned over 80 percent of the city to the Palestinian Authority. About 30,000 Palestinians live under Israeli control in the city center, where the settlers also have their homes.

The Israeli army briefly took over the hills in August but pulled out despite protests from the settlers, a vocal and often combative group that often spars with local Israeli police and has accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of failing to protect Israel's residents.

In the days before the army's arrival, the settlers' newsletter described holiday celebrations coming under a barrage of bullets that sent worshippers running for cover. An outdoor concert, wrote David Wilder, "was harmonized by heavy gunfire between the terrorists and Israeli forces."

The next night, Wilder said, shooting erupted again as residents paused to pray. He said the army "did not attempt to ambush the attackers. They stood and watched."

Wilder praised the army after the incursion but warned it is only a first step toward restoring calm. "Will [Sharon] bow to international pressure and remove the troops, or will he stand true, a leader of his people, and order the army to finish the task they have only now begun?" he wrote.

Sharon's orders to seize the Hebron hills came despite American pressure for restraint and criticism for Israel's recent incursions into Palestinian territory. For two weeks, Sharon reluctantly held back his forces at U.S. insistence. But two terrorist attacks and the overrunning of a Gaza Strip settlement prompted Sharon to proclaim on Friday that Israel "can rely only on ourselves" in the future.

But Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, eager to be seen as a peacemaker by the West in light of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, capitulated to an Israeli demand and over the weekend arrested four militants - one from Hamas and three from Islamic Jihad. All were on a list of more than 100 suspected terrorists that Israel has demanded be arrested by the Palestinian Authority. Sharon has held Arafat responsible for shootings and bombings carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that compete with the Palestinian Authority and vow to continue their armed insurrection despite any political agreements.

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