`BEFORE, we could buy things in Hebron. We could walk through the streets and shop in the casbah. We could drive anywhere and not worry. All we want is to continue what we once had.'' Seventeen years ago, Bela and Rami Gonen joined the first wave of Jewish settlers to move to Hebron, following Israel's occupation of the West Bank during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
In their hilltop settlement on the outskirts of town, they talk about the worsening cycle of violence and reprisal that has put the 70,000 Jewish settlers in the territories under the spotlight.
``Before, we were passive; we didn't react,'' says Rami Gonen, a retired Army officer, of the growing number of stonethrowing attacks by local Arabs that have made life more dangerous for the 6,500 settlers who live in and around Hebron. ``But the situation has gotten completely out of control, and the Army doesn't look after us. We have no intention of taking the law into our own hands, but all that's left for us is to defend ourselves.''
Frustrated by what they describe as the Army's inadequate protection, the Kiryat Arba town council last month assigned to Bela Gonen the job of organizing regular foot patrols through Hebron. Each day, for over an hour, a dozen or more heavily armed settlers walk the streets to demonstrate that Jews can still move freely in the city.
But the patrols, which usually have sparked confrontations with Arab residents, have heightened tensions, prompting the Army to impose new restrictions on the settlers.
``We're furious,'' says Bela Gonen, who has been a member of the town council for four years. ``We're furious that we have to ask permission to go to places where we've lived for 18 years, while the Arabs can go anywhere.''
Last week, frustrations boiled over after Arab youths hurled firebombs at 20-year-old Ilan Rosenberg near the entrance to Kiryat Arba.
Hundreds of armed settlers, including Bela Gonen, massed at the entrance to the city, many firing in the air. But they were blocked by soldiers forced into the unwelcome job of playing umpire between Jews and Arabs in the territories.
The Gonens say the incident illustrates the lukewarm resolve of an Army whose mission is hindered by outside pressures.
``The government has turned the Army into an army of observers, like a UN force,'' says Mrs. Gonen.
``The policy is causing and perpetuating the intifadah,'' she adds. ``Without pressure from Washington, the government could have an iron fist.''
``It's not possible that the law can be so one-sided that people can throw rocks, and we can't respond,'' adds Rami Gonen.
Bela Gonen says if the policy of the Army doesn't change, the situation will deteriorate, leading the settlers to take more extreme measures.
One move being considered: moving the entire population of Kiryat Arba, children and all, to a campsite in front of the prime minister's office in Jerusalem to protest the restrictions on settlers.
But she says no amount of pressure or danger would force the settlers in Hebron to leave.
``The irony of the situation is that it has made us stronger and more determined than ever to live here. We would die before leaving here.