Peace at the White House feels unreal in shared land Ancient hostilities remain between Arabs, Israelis despite signing of accord


HEBRON, Occupied West Bank -- Peace may have reigned at the White House yesterday, but in the land shared by Arabs and Jews things looked unchanged, the hostility still clear for all to see.

About 2,000 settlers descended on Hebron, set up banks of loudspeakers under the protection of Israeli soldiers and taunted Arab residents with booming slogans that Hebron is for Jews.

In a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem, residents tried to pull down the 20-foot-high fence that surrounds their impoverished community. The Israeli army stopped them with tear gas and percussion grenades.

In Jerusalem, Israeli opposition leaders, including the front-running challenger for the prime minister's job, Benjamin Netanyahu, signed a document rejecting the accord signed in Washington.

In short, Palestinians and Israelis greeted the signing of the accord with dour unenthusiasm.

"So where is the peace?" wondered Nabil Haliby, 43, as he sat in his shuttered home in Hebron, closed for fear of violence from the settlers. The speeches droned from Washington on the television as the amplified rhetoric of the Jewish settlers boomed through the window cracks.

"Why should we be happy?" he asked.

In that, Mr. Netanyahu agreed.

"This isn't a day of rejoicing in Israel," he said in Jerusalem, where 290 politicians and other figures signed the document saying they rejected the one Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat endorsed at the White House. "Almost everyone feels these ceremonies are unwarranted. There is a somber mood."

A public opinion poll of Israelis showed the ambivalence. The poll, taken for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, showed that 51 percent favored the agreement signed yesterday, with 47 percent opposed. Two percent offered no opinion.

There is no poll this week among Palestinians, but most recent Palestinian public opinion surveys showed only a slightly greater support for the negotiations.

That reaction is far different from the celebrations when the first Palestinian-Israeli accord was signed in Washington in September 1993.

Skepticism from both sides is boosted by the spectacle of watching negotiators announce their agreement and then begin to bicker.

After the agreement was initialed Sunday, Mr. Arafat said the terms would bring the first Israeli troop withdrawal in 10 days. The Israelis kept silent, saying nothing to contradict that.

Now they say he was wrong and that the withdrawal might not begin for several months -- perhaps not until February.

"The agreement says the process of redeployment will start in 10 days. It doesn't mean the army will leave a certain town. It's a long process," Uri Savir, the chief Israeli negotiator, told Israel Radio.

Similarly, yesterday's signing passed without agreement on another key issue: How many Palestinian prisoners will be released by Israel, and when?

The government came under withering criticism yesterday from Israelis protesting the release of Palestinian prisoners.

"The families of these terrorism victims have to suffer double jeopardy. They lost a loved one, and now the terrorists will be free," said Shifra Hoffman, who came to Hebron to protest.

The "alternative agreement" signed by opposition Israeli leaders in Jerusalem was only symbolic. But it has ominous implications for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations if a Likud coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu wins next year's elections. The document declared that the Washington accord signed yesterday will not be honored.

Hours after the signing, residents of Dheisha, the squalid refugee camp of 8,000 Palestinians near Bethlehem, began tugging at the huge fence that has long given their home the air of a prison. Scuffles broke out when Israeli soldiers stopped the demolition.

Elsewhere, there was the usual litany of conflict. On a road north of Ramallah, an Israeli bus driver sustained facial injuries when a stone shattered his windshield. At an entrance to Jerusalem, Israeli protesters tried to block traffic. In Hebron, several Israelis were arrested when they shouted "Death to the Arabs."

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