In Key West Bank Town, Two Religions Rub Raw

OF all the obstacles to peace in the Middle East, the most immediate and emotional is the presence of 450 Jewish settlers in the center of this ancient West Bank town of 120,000 Palestinians.

Palestinian leaders demand that Israeli soldiers withdraw from Hebron and make way for Palestinian police, a major transition to take place here and in six other major West Bank towns as part of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Israel insists it must stay to protect the Jewish settlers until the final status of the West Bank is determined in negotiations due to begin next May.

The settlers, who seized the handful of buildings in 1979 to re-establish a Jewish foothold in the town, claim that their presence in Hebron is vital to the continuity of the Jewish religion, and they refuse to live under the protection of Palestinian police.

For the past three days and nights, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been trying to hammer out a compromise of these conflicting demands.

But Hebron's turbulent history suggests that putting the agreement into practice could prove the most difficult part.

Hebron has become a symbol of Jewish history and of Arab aspirations for a Palestinian state.

The presence of the tiny band of Jewish zealots has become a symbol of the Israeli-occupation Palestinians are striving to shake off.

Hebron is regarded by religious Jews as the second holiest city and a cornerstone of the Jewish religion.

Palestinian Muslims revere the highly contested Ibrahim Mosque as the resting place of the prophet Abraham, whom they look to as a patriarch as do Jews.

Before the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, Jews were barred from entering the mosque. After Israel captured the West Bank in the Six-Day War, Jews and Arabs both prayed in the tomb.

But since Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslims there in 1994, a mosque and synagogue have been divided by bulletproof gates, and separate entrances are guarded by armed Israeli soldiers.

Religious and nationalist extremists on both sides often grab the headlines. In recent weeks, the town has erupted almost daily in violence as Jewish settlers and Palestinians clash.

Palestinians, particularly those in the vicinity of the Jewish settlement, say that the settlers and Israeli soldiers stationed there to guard them have turned their lives into a nightmare.

"Every day, the settlers punish the people in different ways. The soldiers don't stop them and often join in the harassment of the people," says Nabil Halabi, a Palestinian father of 10 who lives in a three-story building surrounded on two sides by the Beit Hadassah Jewish settlement and overlooked on a third by a roof-top Israeli sentry post.

Mr. Halabi says his family is subjected to constant harassment from the Jewish settlers. "They throw stones at the bedroom windows and dump garbage into the yard on a weekly basis.

"On Saturdays, when the stonings are at their worst, we have to vacate the three bedrooms and stay in the living room," he says.

But the settlers say they will not live under the protection of Palestinian police.

"If the army leaves, we will be targets," says settler spokesman Noam Arnon who lives in the Beit Hadassah complex. "This is a very sure way of leading to a cycle of bloodshed and revenge."

As the conflict in Hebron has intensified, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are under increasing pressure to protect their constituencies.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's credibility is on the line. Public pressure is such that he cannot sign an agreement without firmly establishing the principle of Palestinian sovereignty in Hebron.

"No Palestinian will accept a divided Hebron. It is a Palestinian city," chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qreia said. "Redeployment in the whole city of Hebron must be like all other cities.

And Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is also caught in a dilemma.

He says he is opposed to the presence of the settlers in the center of Hebron, but is bound by the terms of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord to protect the settlers until their final status is negotiated in talks due to begin in May next year.

"We face a problem in Hebron," Mr. Rabin told the Jerusalem Post on Sept. 18. "It is very difficult to explain that, because of 415 to 450 Israelis who live there, we can prevent 120,000 people from behaving like every [Palestinian] city. But this is a fact of life.

"We have to adjust our security arrangements to let them [Palestinians] have security responsibility for their own life, and, at the same time, make sure that ... the areas where Jews live will be under our own security," Rabin said.

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