Hebron Seethes as It Awaits Decision

Israel delays planned pullout from religiously split West Bank town

The division between two peoples, Arab and Jew, could not be less subtle: They pray on opposite sides of the same bulletproof glass in the Cave of the Patriarchs here. Israeli soldiers keep them apart.

On the Jewish side, a small room that abuts Abraham's tomb is a synagogue. On the other side, Muslims gather under the vaulted ceiling of a mosque to kneel and pray toward Mecca.

When things are quiet, security seems unnecessary. But Hebron - sacred to Jews and Muslims alike - is a focal point of both groups' militancy. Israel agreed to exit under the peace deal with Palestinians. But that move was delayed as Israel voted in a conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under pressure to hand over the city - except for Jewish settlements - to Palestinian control.

In the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal signed in Washington in 1993, Israel committed to pulling out of seven West Bank towns. Hebron is the last one. But the new prime minister faces an outcry whatever he does - from the Jews if he withdraws, from Palestinians if he doesn't. And emotions are high.

For those who question the need for a bulletproof partition in one of the Holy Land's most sacred sites, Muslims remember Baruch Goldstein. In 1994 the Israeli settler fired a gun into an Islamic crowd, killing 29 Muslims. Evidence of just a single bullet remains in the mosque's marble edifice.

"We came here to pray, not to fight," says one old Arab from Hebron, pointing to the place of the killing. Since then, the observances of Hebron's 400 Jewish settlers have been cut off from those of their 120,000 Arab neighbors.

There are few encouraging signs outside, where the four small, isolated Jewish sections are ringed for security by Israeli soldiers. History serves the arguments of Jew and Muslim alike, though generations of Jews were forced to flee time and again as the city changed hands.

The few Jews who cling to existence today dictate the lives of their Arab "neighbors," and will not consider leaving the tomb of Abraham, the patriarch.

"Hebron is very much more important than the square miles; it is a symbol of all Jewish history," says Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers. "If we are foreign intruders in this area, then what rights do we have anywhere?"

This promised land seems less than blessed, however. The city is tough and decrepit. After Israel took control of Hebron in the 1967 war, settlers began seizing Arab areas in 1968. It was then that Rabbi Moshe Levinger led a group of Jewish families posing as Swiss tourists into the Arab-owned Park Hotel and stayed.

A decade later, the same tactics were used when a group of women and children from Kiryat Arba, one of the most militant Jewish settlements on a hill across from Hebron, barricaded themselves inside an old building, creating a second Jewish enclave.

Today Jewish settler children play together in small playgrounds surrounded by circlets of razor wire and soldiers.

Hebron is the only West Bank town where Arab and Jew live cheek by jowl. Both sides point to the depth of their distrust as an example of how they couldn't live together at peace if Israeli troops pull out.

A residual force of Israeli troops is meant to protect the settlers, but Jews here don't see it as a workable solution.

"I've seen the map of the Hebron withdrawal and it is a mistake," says Mr. Arnon. "It might cause, God forbid, bloodshed." For him the bottom line is mistrust of Arabs in Hebron, based on a massacre of 67 Jews by Arabs in 1929.

On Aug. 4, Hebron Jews honored the dead, under the slogan: "To remember the past, to rebuild the future."

"The security of the city must remain in the hands of Israelis," Arnon says.

"There can be Palestinian civilian rule, but never in any way an armed power. If Hebron is turned over, it will fall to [the militant Palestinian group] Hamas, and will be used to prepare terrorist acts all over the country."

For him, life in Israel's occupied territories has been one of specially built bypass roads so Jewish settlers don't drive through Palestinian-controlled towns, of chain-link fences along some roads to protect from stone-throwing kids, and of convoys carrying families brought in to beef up settler numbers in many inhospitable areas.

It is a parched existence, but not one Jews will easily give up, even though Hamas activists have threatened a new intifadah, or uprising, in Hebron unless Israeli settlers and soldiers depart.

The threat has credibility: It was here that such militants began the legacy of drive-by shootings of Jews.

As Jews look to the killings of 1929 to justify their place in Hebron, so the Arab community holds Jews in contempt for the Goldstein massacre two years ago.

"These settlers are top fanatics and say the land was given to them by the hand of God," says Hebron's Arab mayor, Mustafa Natshe. "Arabs have no rights."

The 1929 incident was not a massacre, he says, because Arabs led 1,800 Jews to safety. But still there is hatred: Grafitti of the star of David appear on Arab homes, and Arab schools are spray-painted with signs that read "Death to Arabs."

Goldstein's legacy is "instructive," the mayor says. Jews visit his grave. The mayor's impression is that few militant settlers condemn the act. "All the settlers will appreciate this crime," he says. "They teach their sons to be heroes like him."

Mr. Arnon denies such sentiments, and says that he hopes the future will see Hebron turn into a place more in keeping with its Biblical history.

"Abraham spread the belief in one God, and brought the new world to mankind," he says. "Hebron should be a city of enlightenment."

But for Hebron's Arabs, such a vision is far from coming true. On the Arab side of the bulletproof glass, Mr. Natshe says he will never forget the day that one angry Jewish woman confronted him, face to face: "Long live Goldstein!" she shouted.

"I'm not angry because this is the mentality," he says matter-of-factly. "These people don't want to make peace."

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