Behind the Headlines: Tranquility in Hebron Masks Potential for Renewed Violence

A deceptive calm descended on the streets of Hebron this week as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were meeting in Jerusalem to put the final touches on an agreement to transfer most of Hebron to self-rule.

“We need peace, because peace brings stability,” said Tawfik Abu-Afifeh, a Palestinian who owns a shop abutting the Jewish Quarter here. “We have lived here in peace with the Jews, we can do it even today.”

But, in an comment reflecting the deep tensions underlying the deceptive tranquility in Hebron, Abu-Afifeh added: “If the Jews get out of here, so much the better.”

How Hebron’s 130,000 Arabs and 500 Jewish residents will coexist after Israeli troops redeploy from most of this West Bank town is not clear.

The question of coexistence is particularly acute in the Jewish Quarter, where some 30,000 Palestinians live, and where Israeli security forces will retain control.

“My residence lies within the Palestinian Authority territory,” said Mohammed Karam, “but my shop will be under Jewish control.” Karam wondered whether he would need a visa to get to his shop in the market in the Jewish Quarter. He will not, but he may have to pass through a security checkpoint or two.

Many Palestinians, as well as Jews, seemed resigned to the inevitability of Hebron accord, but fear that the new arrangements will not work because they doubt coexistence is possible.

“There is no coexistence with people like Rabbi Moshe Levinger,” said Jamal Abu-Rayan, an Arab vendor in the market, referring to one of the founders of the current Jewish community in Hebron.

The Jewish residents, who re-established the historic Jewish community here shortly after the 1967 Six Day War, are no less adamant.

On Betar House, dominating the Jewish Quarter of Hebron, a huge sign states: “This market was built on Jewish property, stolen by Arabs, after the 1929 massacre.”

Warnings of a renewed confrontation are not difficult to find.

“If things deteriorate into a new war, it will not be our fault,” said Noam Arnon, the spokesman of the Jewish residents in Hebron. “It will be because of the terrorists who are out to get us.”

The terrorists, according to Arnon, are not necessarily members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but rather the armed Palestinian police officers who will be deployed in the town once the agreement goes into effect.

Levinger himself prefers to keep quiet these days.

“I have retired,” he said. “There are others who should do the talking.”

But the controversial rabbi who settled in Hebron about 29 years ago voiced confidence that the Jewish community would persevere. “Even if there are obstacles, in the long run we shall win the day.”

The potential of violence is always present.

Palestinian and Jewish extremists alike have sought to jeopardize the Hebron agreement.

Two weeks ago, an Israeli soldier opened fire in the market, wounding seven Palestinians. Firebombs thrown by Arabs at Jewish targets have occurred frequently.

Meanwhile, the most recent newcomers to Hebron — foreign journalists – - appeared this week to be eager to see an agreement concluded.

Two months ago, the major American television networks rented rooftops near the Jewish Quarter for some $2,000 to $3,000 per month to be well-positioned when a redeployment is implemented. Their crews and other journalists have remained in Hebron around the clock, as expectations rose on an almost weekly basis for more than three months that a signing ceremony was imminent.

“Our office is considering opening a regular office in Hebron, so that our stay here will be permanent,” said Awwad Awwad, a cameraman for Agence France- Presse. “Even if an agreement is signed, the situation on the ground will be difficult, very difficult.”

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