The Israeli Cabinet decision to establish two residential schools in the Arab city of Hebron has caused a quantum leap in hostility between the Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank and Israel.
It comes, moreover, at a time when negotiations between Israel and Egypt on self-rule for the Palestians are nearing their May 26 target date.
The decision affects Palestinians on a sensitive point -- one often not appreciated by the average Israeli: their fear of being dispossesed of their land.
This concern lies behind the vitriolic language used at a stormy protest meeting at the Hebron town hall March 24. Some Israelis labeled it the most extreme they could recall at an open Arab meeting during 12 years of occupation.
The Cabinet decision, said Hebron's Mayor fahd Kawasmeh, an agricultural engineer who maintains good contacts with both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan, "marks the end of the period of petitions, protests, and declarations. Now we must use all means at our disposal."
Mayor Kawasmeh, who is considered a moderate because he accepts the idea of Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side, called for a strike campaign of civil disobedience all over the West Bank if the Jewish schools are established.
Mayor Muhammad Milhem of Halhul spoke even more angrily. "We have now started losing hope . . . in the peace process. What has been taken by force can never be regained except by force."
In this emotionally volatile area, where words often outstrip actions, it is as yet unclear how, or whether, West Bankers will translate their anger into protest. The anger could be defused if the ISraeli parliamentary committee that is reviewing the Cabinet's decision votes to reverse it.
But with world attention focused on the West Bank as the autonomy talks enter their final phase, the conflict over Hebron underscores several factors that portend the next two months will be stormy.
* The issue of Jewish settlements -- and its alter ego, land -- has haunted the autonomy negotiations from the beginning. No issue creates more visceral fears on the West Bank fears that Israel's real intent is to disperse the Arab population.
"The Israelis want to cut the West Bank into bits and pieces," Bethlehem's moderate mayor, elias freji, told the Monitor. "They want to physically stop us from having any possibility of a homeland."
Mayor Kawasmeh, noting that Hebron's Jewish suburb of Kiryat Arba, now 3000 -strong, started as a religious school, insists dramatically, "These things start small and swallow up whole towns."
Feeding such fears are statements by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, leader of the would-be Hebron settlers, who says settlers will restrict themselves to living in the two schools "only in the beginning." The Cabinet's decision, he says, is "no doubt an opening to building Hebron. . . ."
* The Hebron settlement issue lends itself to violence because of the deep passions on both sides. The would-be Jewish settlers, mostly members of the nationalist-religious Gush Emunim group, believe that Jews have the right to return en masse to Hebron, where the Jewish patriarchs are buried, and from which JEws were driven by an Arab massacre in 1929.
But their fervor sometimes shows little respect for the law. "We have our own law, the Bible," an Israeli student told me as he entered the downtown Hebron building where five Gush Emunim families have been squatting illegally for six months.
On the Arab side, in the Muslim city of Hebron, the presence of settlers could spark religious and nationalistic fanaticism. IT was the recent murder of a Jewish yeshiva (religious school) student from Kiryat Arba in the Hebron casbah that led to the Israeli government decisions to establish a yeshiva in dowtown Hebron.
This was the first political murder of an Israeli settler under the occupation. But in a dramatic illustration of the cycle of violence, the two Arab suspects still being held for the murder are the brothers of an Arab student who was killed by an ISraeli soldier a year ago in a neighboring town during a stone-throwing demonstration.
Palestinians here say the presence of more settlers in downtown Hebron may provide a provocation for further violence.
* The Hebron issue undercuts Arab political moderates on the West Bank, forcing them into alliances with extremists. An Israeli military government source told Israel radio after the Hebron meeting that "there never were any moderates. They all were PLO supporters and said so."
Mayor Kawasmeh of Hebron recently held meetings with leftist-leaning Israelis and spoke with them of a two-state solution. Considered a moderate, he says he accepts the right of Jews who lived in Hebron previously to return there -- if Arabs who lived inside what is now Israel can return to their homes.