THE first Israeli government official to visit Jewish settlers in Hebron since the massacre there three weeks ago lent a sympathetic ear to their complaints on Thursday, and promised to step up Army protection for them against revenge attacks.
Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur, the government's point man in its relations with settlers in the Israeli-occupied territories, tried to reassure Jewish residents in the heart of Hebron, and in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, that the authorities care for them.
Since Baruch Goldstein, who lived in Kiryat Arba, massacred about 30 Palestinians as they worshiped in the Cave of the Patriarchs, at least half the Israeli Cabinet has come round to the view that the 450 settlers living cheek-by-jowl with Palestinians in Hebron should be removed. This is also one of the key demands of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) before it returns to negotiations over limited self-rule in Gaza and Jericho.
General Gur reassured settlers that the government would not concede that demand. Evacuating settlers, he said, was ``a subject we do not discuss. In the Oslo agreement and in Cairo [negotiations with the PLO], it was agreed that all the Jews would stay where they are, and they are going to stay where they are.''
But he clearly did not convince many in his audience as he met community leaders in Beit Hadassah, a heavily fortified Jewish-inhabited building on a street otherwise lined by shuttered Palestinian shops closed by the 24-hour curfew that has been in force since the massacre.
``This government has broken every promise it has made, and if it wants to, it will break this promise too,'' scoffed Avraham Shmuelevich, a recent immigrant from Leningrad, who now lives in Beit Hadassah.
``Motta Gur is the best man in the government, but I am sorry he is not the leader of the government - far from it,'' added Danny Hizmi, proprietor of ``Karni Kaster Fast Food'' there.
Gur, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, is popular with the settlers and is well known as a man who listens to their views with understanding. ``He is the only one in the government that we trust,'' said Moshe Mayevsky, a town councillor in Kiryat Arba, after a meeting with Gur yesterday morning.
As the United Nations Security Council prepared to call for some sort of protection for Palestinians in the wake of the massacre, Gur's mind was on more protection for the Hebron settlers, who he fears will come under renewed attack once the curfew on the city's Palestinians is lifted.
In the book-lined sitting room where Rabbi Moshe Bleicher, head of the Shvei Hevron yeshiva (religious seminary) and his wife, Neor, received Gur, the atmosphere was friendly. Over tea and sweet pastries, the deputy minister discussed the difficulties of bringing up Jewish children in the middle of Hebron.
In Kiryat Arba, notorious among Palestinians as home to some of the most aggressive settlers, including many members of the extremist Kach movement outlawed this week, Gur promised to do what he could to make life easier for residents he said felt ``pressured.''
Community leaders complained about reduced bus services and a recent cut in government subsidies for the settlement's kindergarten. Though they were happy to find a sympathetic ear, the settlers were not reassured. ``Gur does his best,'' Mr. Mayevsky said. ``But the government's policy has been to choke us, especially in the atmosphere they have created around us. That is very difficult to bear.''