Hebron: West Bank Tinderbox

Prospects for coexistence evaporate under tight curfew, mounting Palestinian frustration

AT a cavernous and gloomy warehouse in this bloodied West Bank town, mourners gathered on March 8 to pay their last respects to Wael Natsheh.

Shot dead by soldiers on March 7 as he threw stones at an Israeli Army jeep, Wael's youthful face beamed out from a portrait hung at the entrance to the family business. Draping the picture was the scarf he had been wearing wrapped round his head when he was killed.

Torn by the bullet, the black scarf bore a text, woven into it in angular Arabic script from white wool: ``There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet,'' one of the five basic tenets of Islam.

A green flag emblazoned with crossed scimitars beneath a Koran -

the banner of the radical Islamist group Hamas - was pinned to the wall of the warehouse, beneath the Palestinian flag, in another indication of 20-year-old Wael's political and religious leanings. And the mood amongst the mourners was bitter.

``So long as there is one settler or one soldier in Hebron, our martyrs will continue to fall,'' predicted Nabil Natshe, Wael's older brother. ``This will only end when there are none of them left in Hebron.''

It is not only Hamas militants, who believe the only solution to the Palestinian problem is to wipe out Israel, who are angry in Hebron now. For 12 days - ever since Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein mowed down at least 30 Muslim worshipers in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs, the main mosque - the town has been clamped under a 24-hour curfew, and people are seething with rage.

The Israeli military authorities are in a quandary. They know that every new day the curfew is imposed, Hebron's residents only grow more resentful.

And yet when they have lifted the curfew for two hours to allow people to buy food, clashes have broken out, and more blood has been shed.

``It is impossible to go back to life as it was before,'' says one young man, who asked not to be identified. ``The moment they lift the curfew, there will be three, four, five martyrs every day.''

At the moment, curfew regulations are being only partially enforced. Although the center of town is thoroughly shut down, residents elsewhere are allowed to walk around, to attend functions such as Wael Natsheh's wake, for example, or to visit neighbors.

``The Israelis let us violate the curfew a bit, because they know that if they pressed just a little harder, there would be an explosion,'' the young man adds.

The whole town is officially off-limits to journalists, however, and the shuttered streets are heavily patrolled by Army jeeps and units of foot soldiers. All shops and workplaces are closed, black flags fly from many rooftops, and the subdued atmosphere is pregnant with the prospect of further violence.

Many Hebronites complain that the Army's overbearing presence only inflames Palestinian passions and makes clashes inevitable.

``The military authorities insist on being frictional and confrontational all the time,'' argues Rateb abu-Rmeileh, director of Hebron's Al-Ahli hospital. ``They are not leaving people in peace.

``Last night, when the wake for Wael was starting, the Army fired percussion grenades at the crowd,'' one mourner claims.

``And when the curfew was lifted in this part of town, there were 10 jeeps where normally they have four. This is provocative.''

Army spokesman Capt. Danny Seaman denies that soldiers provoke the violence that has killed 10 young Hebronites in the past week. ``If people are seeking out the Army, there is only so much it can do to keep out of the way,'' he says. ``The Army has to keep a presence, and some Palestinians are seeking confrontation.''

He adds that ``there are no plans to lift the curfew, at least not soon'' in Hebron, confirming residents' fears that their lives will be bottled up for the foreseeable future.

``The people are boiling with anger,'' Dr. Rmeileh says.

``They lost all these people ... and they did not have the time, or the space, to mourn their dead. Because of the curfew, they were not given time to express their grief, and this is quite a stress,'' Rmeileh says.

Most Palestinians' anger in Hebron is focused on the 415 Israeli settlers who live in buildings right in the heart of the city, some of whom have praised Goldstein's massacre publicly.

The Israeli government is weighing the possibility of forcibly evacuating these settlers to a safer place, on the grounds that the Army says it needs over 1,000 men to protect them from Palestinian vengeance.

For Palestinians, allowing heavily armed settlers to live among them - especially in the wake of the mosque massacre - ``is like asking hens and foxes to live in the same house,'' in Abu Rmeileh's words.

Whereas only a few months ago Palestinian Hebronites could be found who were willing to live next door to Israeli settlers who cared to stay under a future Palestinian self-rule arrangement, that mood of tolerance has evaporated.

``Coexistence is only possible when you feel at peace and secure,'' argued Ziyad Natsheh as he sat with other mourners for his nephew.

``How can you coexist with someone who kills your son?'' he asks.

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