Peace is 'a fantasy' in Hebron, Israeli says Reduced presence of soldiers troubles many Jewish settlers


HEBRON, West Bank -- Along with hundreds of other Israelis, Arie Baum traveled to Hebron this weekend to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and support the Jewish settlers determined to live in this embattled city.

Baum, 48, is an accountant and a religious Jew from a suburb of Tel Aviv, and the prospect of Israel's withdrawing many of its soldiers in Hebron troubles him. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have said they expect to sign an agreement by midweek. But Baum, like the settlers, says no agreement can bring peace.

Peace "is a fantasy not based on reality," he said.

The reality of Hebron is this:

Palestinians have in recent days hurled Molotov cocktails at Jewish settlers and Israeli police guarding the Jewish settlement that is in the heart of the city. Under the cover of darkness, Jewish settlers have tried to take over Palestinian houses that are being renovated near the Jewish enclave.

This is the last of the West Bank cities that Israel had promised in its peace agreement with Palestinians to hand over to Arafat's Palestinian authority.

But the previous Israeli government twice delayed the transfer, leaving the issue to Netanyahu, who took office in May and vowed to seek what he said was stronger protection for the settlers here.

Those settlers, among the most ardent and ideological in the West Bank, are part of a powerful constituency of the prime minister -- and vehemently oppose a partial Israeli withdrawal.

'Situation is a time bomb

The agreement being negotiated with help from American mediator Dennis Ross would outline security arrangements in the city, the role of the Israeli soldiers who would be allowed to remain, the weapons to be used by Palestinian police and the status of a shopping street that runs near the Jewish settlement of Beit Hadassah. That street has been closed since a Jewish settler shot to death 29 Muslim worshipers in 1994.

L But the tension and ill-feeling are not likely to disappear.

A signed agreement won't erase the anti-Jewish slogans spray-painted on buildings or the Stars of David scrawled on storefronts in the old Arab market. Nor will it change the feeling of many Palestinians who see the gun-toting settlers as interlopers.

"The situation of the settlers in the middle of Hebron is a time bomb," said Palestinian shopkeeper Khalid Sugier. "They are a provocation."

An agreement on Hebron won't change the attitude of settlers who fear attacks once the Israeli military presence is reduced.

"Arabs of Hebron say they don't want us here and they are going to do everything they can to get us out," said Jewish community spokesman David Wilder. "We're staying in Hebron. We're not going anywhere."

Battle over tomb, housing

A troop withdrawal also won't soften the determination of the 400 Jewish settlers to build more housing and add to their numbers.

There also will be no end to the competing claims for control of the site that tradition says is the burial place of Abraham.

Talks are supposed to begin within a few months of an Israeli troop withdrawal to determine the future of the site, known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque.

For the settlers, there is no question: The tomb should not be under Palestinian authority.

With that goal in mind, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Australia -- a financial supporter of the Hebron settlers -- sponsored a prayer service that began Friday evening, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.

"On this Sabbath," read a pamphlet publicizing the event, "we will read a prayer in the cave to rescue Hebron."

Arie Baum was among the Israelis who came to pray.

"Every bus that comes to visit [the settlers], every day the people come to support them, it helps them," Baum said. "We agreed in 1947 to divide this land, a half or a third for the Jews. The other three-quarters for [the Arabs]. They didn't want it. They started a war."

Settlers 'are hostages'

Wilder fears that the settlers will become vulnerable as Israel and the Palestinian authority negotiate their future.

"We are hostages," Wilder said. "Today they are continuing to throw fire bombs. This is a new accepted norm in Hebron."

But Khalid Sugier, the Palestinian shopkeeper, sees it differently.

"People are living in fear here," he said of his fellow Hebronites. "If Israel really wants peace, they have to change this.

"I want to live in peace. We and the Israelis are not enemies. The Israelis have to solve the problem of their extremists."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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