Thousands of Israelis, in an unprecedented display of support for the ultranationalist Jewish settlement movement, have streamed into this predominantly Arab town in the past two days. At least 5,000 people, most of them religiously observant Jews, came by bus or private car to take ``tours'' of Jewish sites on Sunday and Monday.
These tours were offered by Gush Emunim, the militant nationalist movement that is at the vanguard of the drive for increasing Jewish settlement in areas Israel has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Gush spokesmen say they were celebrating 18 years of Jewish settlement in Hebron. Hebron Arabs and antisettlement Israelis claim the settlers were seeking confrontation with Hebronites.
The tours began just two days after a Jewish youth was stabbed and slightly wounded in Hebron. The incident was the latest in a series of clashes between settlers and local Palestinians that began after a band of militant settlers checked into a downtown Hebron hotel 18 years ago -- and announced they had come to stay.
If anything, Hebron seems to underscore the hopelessness of the situation on the West Bank.
After 19 years of Israeli occupation and 18 years of a concerted drive by Gush Emunim to settle in the heart of Hebron, only 35 families -- by Gush's own estimate -- live in this city of approximately 70,000 Arabs.
It is a time of frustration for the militant settlers: Israel's coalition government has failed to build new settlements; attacks against Jews in the occupied territories have increased; and fewer Israelis are willing to live in the occupied territories.
In opinion polls, a slim majority of Israelis still express willingness to return at least part of the occupied territories to Arab control in exchange for peace.
However, little hope remains for progress toward peace talks between Israel and Jordan. King Hussein's split in February from the Palestine Liberation Organization has not led him to negotiate alone with Israel. Israel's hopes of instituting greater Arab autonomy in the occupied territories were shattered by the assassination in March of Zafer Masri, the Israeli-appointed Palestinian mayor in nearby Nablus.
Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, at a Gush fundraiser Sunday, spoke of ``Jewish Hebron'' and discounted hints by Premier Shimon Peres's hints that Israel-Jordan contacts are continuing and might yet yield results.
[Through ``quiet diplomacy,'' Mr. Peres said Sunday, Israel and Jordan have opened a channel of communication that could revive the stalled Mideast peace process, the Associated Press reports. But Peres did not elaborate on the kinds of contacts.]
The settlements in Hebron mark ``the renewal of Jewish life in Hebron,'' according to Rachel Klein, spokeswoman for the ultranationalist Tehiya Party in the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. Mrs. Klein said the Jews are only reclaiming parts of the city where Jews lived until the 1929 Arab massacre of some 68 Jews in Hebron.
But the few Jews who do live in Hebron live there under the constant heavy guard of Israeli reserve soldiers. Most of the settlers themselves carry weapons.
The Israeli Army was out in force Sunday and Monday, both to guard the Israelis visiting Hebron and to prevent the Gush from turning the tours into a demonstration. Paratroopers joined hundreds of police and border patrolmen throughout the city.
There were only two incidents. Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the anti-Arab Kach movement, made a brief appearance before being escorted away by soldiers. A Kahane supporter was arrested for distributing Kach literature. A second man was arrested for spitting at a member of parliament who criticized the settler tours.
The general atmosphere was festive, however, with whole families strolling near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Muslims and Jews believe Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are buried, and sharing picnic lunches beneath the watchful gaze of soldiers. Many Arab shopowners simply closed their stores for the day and went home. Others sold souvenirs to the visitors.
Housing Minister David Levy, a member of the rightist Likud half of the government, appeared at a West Bank settlement stone-laying ceremony and vowed to build homes for Jews in downtown Hebron. His promise is unlikely to be kept, however, as long as the ``national unity'' government exists. The Cabinet is evenly balanced between Labor -- which opposes more settlement in the territories, and Likud, which supports it.