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Dismay as Israeli settlers take over Hebron home

The dispute over a West Bank house highlights internal struggles among Palestinians and Israelis.

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After 29 Muslim worshipers were gunned down at the site by New York-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein in 1994, Israeli authorities decided to separate Muslim and Jewish access to the site. Three years later, after much deliberation over the viability of the Oslo Accords' framework for the town, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to divide it into H1 (under full Palestinian control) and H2 (an area that would encompass the Jewish settlements and remain under Israeli control).

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However, since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000 and the subsequent reoccupation of the Israeli army of many areas of the West Bank from which they had previously withdrawn, Palestinians say, the distinction isn't so relevant.

The house in question sits in H2, the area meant to be under Israeli control, and would make a strategic territorial link between the Hebron settlers and Kiryat Arba, a settlement across the hill.

In the meantime, however, H2 has 40,000 Palestinians in it and about 500 Jewish settlers. The numbers of Palestinians were once far greater, as many have migrated away from the tension and occasional lockdowns.

Human rights groups says Palestinian freedom of movement has been severely restricted. There are routine complaints of harassment at the hands of settlers, some of which has recently been captured on film and broadcast on Israeli television, turning many Israeli moderates against the settlers. Most Palestinians here can get to their homes or businesses only on foot because no Palestinian cars are allowed on the roads.

"Sure, we hope they'll be kicked out, but then people everywhere will just forget the situation of this area and what we're living through," says Marwan Jaber, who owns a convenience store across the street from the settlers' new digs.

"We know that if they stay here, the first thing they'll want to do is to build a road between here and Kiryat Arba, and that will mean cutting through our neighborhood, maybe confiscating our land. It's like expending a Christian extremist in America to live next to Osama bin Laden," he says.

A month to appeal the eviction

An evacuation of the settlers, if it does happen, probably won't occur immediately. Israel's attorney general says they should have a month to appeal the order.

But commentary in the Israeli press, as one indication of public sentiment, is critical of Olmert's reluctance to back his defense minister's eviction plans to evict the settlers.

Yediot Ahronot, one of Israel's mass circulation dailies and a paper that usually takes a center-right stance, said in an editorial Thursday that Olmert has "capitulated" to Hebron settlers by taking their side against Defense Minister Peretz, "damaging Israeli security, morality and society."

Ruth Hizmi, a mother of seven who left her home elsewhere in Hebron to be here, says she believes her youngest three will be raised in this house.

"I hope our leaders will stop with this cowering before our enemies," she says. "At a time when Jews were forced from their homes in Gaza, it's great that there's at least one optimistic light – that we're setting down roots in another part of the land of Israel. God willing, there will be no evacuation, and we'll all get to stay."