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Behind the Headlines: Attack on Hikers Shakes Israeli Confidence on Peace

The brutal murder of two Israeli hikers on Saturday has dampened the optimism that many here have felt since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn last month.

The attack was reportedly carried out by five Palestinians opposed to the mutual-recognition accord, which grants limited autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

According to witnesses, terrorists shot and then stabbed the young hikers at Wadi Kelt, a popular hiking site near Jericho.

Despite the prime minister’s statement that “We never promised that the road to peace would be easy,” many people here seemed unprepared for the attack.

While few Israelis — even those fully in favor of the accord — expected miracles overnight, people on both the left and right wings had been keeping their fingers crossed. A common refrain among opponents of the plan has been, “I honestly don’t think it will work, but I’d love to be wrong.”

The latest incident hit Israelis especially hard, political analysts say, because it occurred less than a mile from Mitzpeh Jericho, a Jewish settlement near Jericho.

Settlers in the region immediately blocked the Jerusalem-Jericho road to protest what they termed the “abandonment of our settlements.”

Following the attack, the security chief of Mitzpeh Jericho, Brachiyahu Boaz told reporters: “It’s no coincidence that this happened so close to Jericho. (The terrorists) are trying to show how easy it is now to attack Jews in the area.”

‘MURDERS HIT US VERY HARD’

This opinion isn’t exclusive to residents of the territories, however.

“The area was singled out because Jericho will soon come under Palestinian autonomy,” said Howard Metz, a Jerusalem dentist. “The attack on the hikers has shaken the confidence of a lot of people, happening so soon after the peace signing in Washington.”

A weekend hiker, Metz said he “will think twice about hiking in the region, and if I go, it will be with someone carrying a gun. I won’t stop hiking, but I will be more cautious in the future.”

That is the advice being given by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, whose guided tours are renowned for their high level of safety and preparedness. SPNI also issues hiking permits to groups, in coordination with the police and security forces.

According to the society, more than 150,000 people have hiked through the wadi this year.

“The murders hit us very hard, especially because the area is such a popular hiking destination,” said an SPNI tour guide named Yaniv. “But this won’t stop us from hiking, because the country is really very safe.”

At the same time, the guide urged all hikers to seek information and advice from SPNI before embarking on a trip “off the beaten track.”

“Peace, when it comes, will bring many positive changes. But as the latest incident illustrates, we still have a long way to go,” he said.

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