It's late afternoon in this troubled town when an Israeli army jeep comes whizzing up the road, ferrying a few soldiers with orders: tack up an eviction notice on the large building that Jewish settlers took over 2-1/2 weeks ago.
Palestinian neighbors step into their doorways or peek out the windows, watching as a soldier tapes up small signs, telling the settlers that they've got 30 days to leave.
When the soldiers are gone, the signs are, too. They are quickly removed by settlers who say they're here to stay, and, in the words of one woman among the 13 families living here, to "see the redemption of another piece of the land of Israel."
Palestinians next door are dismayed, but not surprised. Their lives have become more miserable, they say, ever since Hebron was divided almost 10 years ago into two supposedly autonomous parts, one Israeli and one Palestinian.
At first glance, it might look like an old tango between Israelis and Palestinians – performed one too many times for anyone to get passionate about.
But this round has many unprecedented elements. The standoff over the big house on a hill, which local Palestinians say is owned by the Jaberi family and which Israeli settlers plan to name Heroes' Peak or Martyrs' Peak (both names were tacked on the bulletin board inside, as if trying them on for size), is not just one of those issues that complicates efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table, but also highlights internal struggles in both societies.
Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, issued the order for the settlers to leave, on the grounds that they moved in without the permission of the Israeli army or any security coordination with them. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is opposing Mr. Peretz, who is facing a challenge to his leadership inside the left-wing Labor Party in primaries next month.
Mr. Olmert's minister of industry, trade, and labor, Eli Yishai, went to the house Wednesday and announced that the settlers' place here was legitimate because it was in an area of Hebron assigned to Israeli control as part of the Oslo Accords, and that at any rate, was actually purchased by the settlers.
The who, what, and whether of the transaction is hotly contested. But a few claims are clear. The Hebron settlers' spokesman, David Wilder, says they bought the house for $700,000. A Palestinian man is in custody of Palestinian police in Jericho, and stands accused of selling the property to the settlers. Any such sale has been deemed a capital offense punishable by death by the Palestinian legislative council.
The religious tug of Hebron
It's been nearly 40 years since Israel wrested control of the West Bank from Jordan, taking with it Hebron, one of the ancient territory's most treasured and troublesome locales.
Almost immediately after the 1967 conflict, Jewish religious nationalists were keen to return to Hebron, where there had long been a Jewish community until an anti-Zionist riot in 1929 that killed 67 Jews and pushed the rest to flee. Post-Six Day War settlers began hunkering down in Hebron in 1968, against the Israeli army's orders.
Both Jews and Muslims revere the city's Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, and other Biblical ancestors are believed to be buried, according to the book of Genesis.
After 29 Muslim worshipers were gunned down at the site by New York-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein in 1994, Israeli authorities decided to separate Muslim and Jewish access to the site. Three years later, after much deliberation over the viability of the Oslo Accords' framework for the town, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to divide it into H1 (under full Palestinian control) and H2 (an area that would encompass the Jewish settlements and remain under Israeli control).
However, since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000 and the subsequent reoccupation of the Israeli army of many areas of the West Bank from which they had previously withdrawn, Palestinians say, the distinction isn't so relevant.
The house in question sits in H2, the area meant to be under Israeli control, and would make a strategic territorial link between the Hebron settlers and Kiryat Arba, a settlement across the hill.
In the meantime, however, H2 has 40,000 Palestinians in it and about 500 Jewish settlers. The numbers of Palestinians were once far greater, as many have migrated away from the tension and occasional lockdowns.
Human rights groups says Palestinian freedom of movement has been severely restricted. There are routine complaints of harassment at the hands of settlers, some of which has recently been captured on film and broadcast on Israeli television, turning many Israeli moderates against the settlers. Most Palestinians here can get to their homes or businesses only on foot because no Palestinian cars are allowed on the roads.
"Sure, we hope they'll be kicked out, but then people everywhere will just forget the situation of this area and what we're living through," says Marwan Jaber, who owns a convenience store across the street from the settlers' new digs.
"We know that if they stay here, the first thing they'll want to do is to build a road between here and Kiryat Arba, and that will mean cutting through our neighborhood, maybe confiscating our land. It's like expending a Christian extremist in America to live next to Osama bin Laden," he says.
A month to appeal the eviction
An evacuation of the settlers, if it does happen, probably won't occur immediately. Israel's attorney general says they should have a month to appeal the order.
But commentary in the Israeli press, as one indication of public sentiment, is critical of Olmert's reluctance to back his defense minister's eviction plans to evict the settlers.
Yediot Ahronot, one of Israel's mass circulation dailies and a paper that usually takes a center-right stance, said in an editorial Thursday that Olmert has "capitulated" to Hebron settlers by taking their side against Defense Minister Peretz, "damaging Israeli security, morality and society."
Ruth Hizmi, a mother of seven who left her home elsewhere in Hebron to be here, says she believes her youngest three will be raised in this house.
"I hope our leaders will stop with this cowering before our enemies," she says. "At a time when Jews were forced from their homes in Gaza, it's great that there's at least one optimistic light – that we're setting down roots in another part of the land of Israel. God willing, there will be no evacuation, and we'll all get to stay."