HEBRON, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- On most days this scruffy city witnesses a scene straight from a "High Noon" cowboy cliche.
A small gang of gunmen, nonchalantly thumbing their weapons, swaggers through the center of town. They bear a dare-you invitation to trouble and sometimes kick over carts or bully shopkeepers in search of a challenge. Along their route, shutters slam shut and frightened residents peer from behind quickly locked doors.
In this daily drama, the Jewish settlers who stroll with their automatic weapons willingly admit they want to foster fear in the hearts of the Arab residents of Hebron.
"You have to say to Arabs that they will not dance on our blood because they will be damaged," Norm Arnon, one of the settlers, explained recently. "That is the minimum."
Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who opened fire with an automatic weapon killing dozens of Muslims praying in the city's main mosque Friday morning, was deeply committed to this philosophy.
According to those who knew him, he was among the more strident of settlers who lived at Kiryat Arba, a settlement near Hebron regarded as a community of extremists.
The settlers at Hebron have vowed to lead the charge against anyone who stands in the way of their claim to the land they call Eretz Israel, whether the opposition is from Arabs or the government of Israel.
They believe all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are given by God to the Jews, and only to the Jews in a covenant with Abraham, the very prophet who is buried here and revered by both Jews and Muslims. Many of the settlers say the 2 million Arabs living there should leave. Goldstein, who apparently was beaten to death after the massacre, shared that belief.
"We are sick of them; the Arabs are like an epidemic," he said in an interview with a filmmaker before his death. The interview was published yesterday in the New York Post. Arabs "are like the pathogens that infect us. . . . They will not rest until they have
raped all our women and killed all our men."
That such talk was not particularly noteworthy until now is an indication of the vehemence of views there. It was unexceptional talk from the settlers of Kiryat Arba.
To understand the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs on Friday, and the man accused of the crime, one needs to measure the extremism of Goldstein's community.
Jewish settlers have been a flash point for Israeli-Palestinian relations for 26 years. But the settlements of Hebron are a special case: They have willingly provided the spark.
"It's really a hornet's nest," said Ehud Sprinzak, an Israeli scholar who has studied and written about extremism in Israeli society. "They are by far the most radical, the most extreme, the most anti-Arab. If there was any place a [massacre] like this would happen, I had no doubt it would be here."
There is a surface air of normality to Kiryat Arba, which has grown into a sprawling complex of houses and apartment buildings. Behind the fences and armed guards is a suburban calm. Children stroll to school; old men read newspapers in the small parks between apartment buildings; driving instructors coax white-knuckled students along the quiet streets. But beneath that calm is a legacy of violence. In 1929, Arabs turned on the old Jewish community of Hebron, killing 67 Jews. When Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, some Jews saw their mission to reclaim Hebron for Jews.
Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his followers secretly moved into the Park Hotel in Hebron and refused to leave. The government railed against him but was unable to evict the settlers. In a compromise, the government conceded to establishing the community of Kiryat Arba near Hebron.
It became a haven for radicals. In 1980, settlers there formed the nucleus of a "Jewish underground" that planted car bombs to kill lTC and maim Arab mayors. In 1982, they plotted -- but did not carry out -- a sophisticated plan for blowing up the Muslim Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
In 1983, they attacked and killed three students at the Islamic University in Hebron in response to an Arab attack in which six Jews were killed.
Rabbi Meir Kahane, a vitriolic American, urged his followers to settle in Kiryat Arba. Although a small minority of the 6,000 settlers, Americans remain among the most extreme in the settlement, and many belong to Kach, the successor to Rabbi Kahane's party.
"All the Kach people are Americans. They are too extreme," grumbled Yoheved Porosh, a 75-year-old widow who has lived in Kiryat Arba for 22 years. "There are a few extreme lunatics in Kiryat Arba, but there are also very nice, gentle people."
Those seen by the Arabs who live in Hebron do not seem gentle. The settlers from Kiryat Arba and downtown Hebron always are armed. Even 16-year-old yeshiva students carry automatic weapons. And they all proclaim themselves ready to use the guns.
In the conflicts that often begin with competing claims by Arabs and Jews over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, settlers fire almost with impunity toward Arabs. The soldiers stationed in Hebron rarely interfere.
"If a Palestinian throws a stone, he will get shot by the army. If a settler shoots at someone, the soldiers say, 'Please don't shoot,' " Farez Monteheb, an Arab in Hebron, complained yesterday.
In December, a series of tit-for-tat killings between the settlers and Arabs led to nearly daily rampages by the settlers. They regularly smashed car windows, shot into Arab homes and beat up Palestinians they found on the street. Even the Hebrew press began to complain that the soldiers seemed afraid of the Jewish extremists.
"The settlers in Hebron are one of the biggest burdens and bothers to the [Army] in the territories," said Danny Rubinstein, a respected journalist for the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz. "Undercover soldiers in disguise are afraid to get too near the settlers out of fear of being shot."
The government ordered a curfew of the settlers Friday afternoon after the massacre. It was the first time that such restrictions regularly imposed on Arabs were extended to Jews. But journalists in Hebron yesterday said they saw the usual column of submachine gun-toting settlers strolling through Hebron.
"People in the settlements are becoming more militant," David Ramati, an American who lives in Kiryat Arba, explained yesterday.
"They are digging in and entrenching for the long fight against the Arabs and the Israeli government."