Hundreds of families in the cramped quarters of this Arab town's marketplace have lived under military curfew for one week. Hebron's curfew was imposed the day two Israeli soldiers were attacked by an Arab assailant in the casbah. One soldier died, the other was badly injured. This attack brought to 13 the number of Israelis killed in the past year in what the government describes as terrorist attacks by Arab nationalists.
The government is caught between wanting to show that such attackers will be severely punished and wanting to avoid further inciting what West Bank leaders say is an increasingly frustrated and bitter Arab community.
In many ways, Hebron is a microcosm of the struggle taking place in the occupied territories. It is a struggle between 750,000 Arabs and about 40,000 Jews over the land, and between the Jewish settlers and the Israeli government over the laws of the land.
Israeli officials close to Prime Minister Shimon Peres said they believe that what happens on the West Bank in the next few months, in towns such as Hebron, may well determine whether Israel enters talks with Jordan and the Palestinians over the future of territories that Israel occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The wave of violence against Jews has put the Cabinet, led by Peres's Labor Party, on the defensive both against hard-line Likud bloc Cabinet members and against a public outcry for sterner measures to stop the attacks.
The Jewish settlers and some Likud members use attacks such as the one in Hebron to bolster their argument that Israel should not negotiate with any Jordanian-Palestinian team.
They complain that even talk of negotiations has led some Arab nationalists to believe Israel is weak, and has encouraged them bolder attacks on Jews.
Ultranationalist, messianic Jewish settlers have sought to reclaim parts of Hebron since 1968. The settlers forced the government into a compromise that led to the establishment in 1970 of Kiryat Arba, a Jewish community above Arab Hebron.
The settlers have steadily increased their holdings inside the heart of Hebron, often building illegal settlements.
The settlers say they are only reclaiming what belongs to the Jewish people. The Arabs say the settlers are encroaching where they are not wanted.
``The children of the murderers and the actual murderers are living in the homes that beong to the Jews,'' said settler Michael Guzofsky. Mr. Guzofsky spoke as he and a group of friends, all armed with submachine guns or rifles, patrolled the streets of Hebron on Saturday.
Guzofsky and other settlers have vowed to mount armed patrols and to continue to establish settlements illegally in the face of what they see as the government's weakness.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said the patrols will not be allowed and that only the government will decide when settlement will be allowed. In recent days, clashes between the settlers and the Army have grown more frequent. [Reuters reports that Israeli troops shot and wounded four Palestinian youths yesterday who fled from an Army checkpoint in Hebron. The youths were the first Arabs shot by Israeli forces since the tough security measures were reinstated in the West Bank last month.]
Mustafa Natche, the deposed acting mayor of Hebron, said he thinks the settlers' tactics are working.
``Whenever an attack occurs in this city, the curfew is on the whole center,'' Mr. Natshe complained. ``It serves the settlers' aims to evacuate the casbah. The people in the casbah are poor people, they depend on their daily work. . . . When the curfews occur and it gets very hard for a man, he leaves his home and he moves from the center of the town to the edge.''
What the settlers want, Natche said, is for all the Arabs in the casbah eventually to give up and move out, making room for the settlers.
The settlers themselves are divided on that proposition. Guzofsky, an adherent to the views of Rabbi Meir Kahane, holds that Jews and Arabs cannot live together.
But Hani Leiter, an immigrant from Chicago, says she believes the settlers and the Arabs can coexist.
``I disagree with the people who go to the casbah and try to start trouble. I don't think there is a need to have a curfew on the casbah,'' Mrs. Leiter says.
She and her family have lived for 14 months on Tel Rumeida, a small patch of rocky earth which settlers say belonged to Jews in ancient times. For months, the settlers have been trying to reinforce the handful of families at Tel Rumeida but the Army has prevented more Jews from moving in. Prime Minister Peres has threatened to dismantle the illegal settlement.
The struggle between the settlers and the Army is likely to spread to Arab cities such as Nablus, where Jews have managed to buy homes from Arabs and are pushing to be allowed to settle in them.
The government remains deeply divided on the issue of increased settlement activity. Peres's aides are proud of the fact that although the government is divided between the centrist Labor Party and the Likud, no new settlements have been built in the past year.
Labor maintains that settlements should be built only in areas where there is no heavy concentration of Arabs. The Likud maintains that Jews should settle everywhere in what they call Eretz Yisrael -- the border of which is the Jordan River.
If the attacks continue, the government will come under enormous pressure to deport more people and to impose harsher penalties and collective punishments.
``The West Bank became a part of life for many Israelis,'' said the Defense Ministry source.
The Army, the source said, is determined that Israelis will feel free to move around the West Bank.
In addition to stepping up surveillance, however, the government also has reinstituted long-dormant measures. In the past few days, the Army has set up roadblocks and is searching Arab residents for weapons more frequently.
These efforts, predicts one analyst, probably will not prevent further attacks.
``Everyone talks about Lebanon as the motivation for Arabs to attack, or about the economic situation, or about this reason or that reason,'' says Zeev Schiff, military analyst for Haaretz newspaper.
``The reason is that the Arabs on the West Bank are an oppressed people. The real issue is that you cannot control them forever.''