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NEWS ANALYSIS Hebron violence threatens added setback to fragile peace process

JERUSALEM, July 7 (JTA) — When Israel and the Palestinians finally reached an agreement on Hebron six months ago, Ariel Sharon said it would not work. The hard-line Likud Party veteran suggested an alternative plan that would have left a smaller area in the West Bank town under Israeli control, but would have created a wider buffer zone between the Jewish and Palestinian areas. Over the past few weeks, Sharon easily could have said: “I told you so.” After several months of tense quiet that followed the Israeli transfer of control of most of the city, Hebron — where Jews and Palestinians live in close proximity — has burst into a mini-war. Almost daily for the past several weeks, Palestinian protesters hurled rocks, explosive charges and gasoline bombs at the Jewish enclave. Israeli soldiers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets across the line dividing the two communities. Although Hebron is unique because of its Jewish and Arab populations, observers see the near-daily violence there as a sign of what could happen throughout the territories as the fragile Israeli- Palestinian peace lies all but shattered. Analysts are also left wondering whether the Hebron agreement — and indeed, the entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process — was anything more than a wish set down in writing, but relegated to the drawer. Despite reports that such cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians had resumed, there was no sign of it in Hebron. Indeed, while Palestinian police were seen attempting to calm the riots when they erupted last month, the policemen had vanished from the streets by last week. In an apparent effort to curb the rioters, Israeli undercover agents crossed over to the Arab sections to arrest some of the protesters. And Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian security in the West Bank, said over the weekend that any Israeli undercover agent found operating in Palestinian-controlled areas would be shot dead. Palestinians blame the violence on anti-Islamic provocations by Jewish settlers, as well as on the deadlocked negotiations. For its part, Israel maintains that the Palestinian Authority initiated the riots without reason and has orchestrated their intensity, turning it up or down at will. “They can be put to an end within minutes” by the Palestinian leadership, said Maj. Gen. Gabi Offir, commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank. Indeed, the rioting subsided earlier this week, after heavy clashes last week left two Israeli soldiers and dozens of Palestinians injured. Under the long-awaited agreement signed in January, some 80 percent of Hebron was transferred to Palestinian self-rule. Israel retained control over the area where about 450 Jewish settlers live, as well as over the city’s Jewish holy sites. Hebron was the last of the Palestinian cities Israel relinquished as part of its overall peace accords with the Palestinians, but it was the only one with a Jewish community. With Israeli-Palestinian talks suspended since March, and no indication that they would resume soon, Israeli security experts had been warning for weeks that the territories were on the verge of burning. On June 27, a young Israeli woman single-handedly escalated the violence. Tatyana Suskin, 25, who immigrated from Russia six years ago, went to Hebron to hang posters depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed as a pig stepping on the Koran, Islam’s holy book. The posters stirred angry reactions from Hebron to Tehran, as Muslims throughout the world condemned the act. Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also condemned the posters, but Palestinian leaders chose to ignore both the official condemnations as well as the fact that they were the work of a lone extremist. Hasan Tahboub, the Palestinian minister of religion, called for a campaign against “hateful settlers who have no respect for human beings.” Suskin, who was arrested June 28 while throwing stones at Palestinian cars in Hebron, lives in Jerusalem with her boyfriend, Yehuda Shomron, also a Russian immigrant. Both identify with the outlawed Kach movement of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the territories. Suskin faces charges of committing a racist act, harming religious sensitivities and supporting a terrorist group. She had confronted police several times in the past with minor misdemeanors, such as riding a bus with a forged monthly ticket, or provoking Muslim guards on the Temple Mount by wearing a Kach T- shirt. In Hebron, it seems that Suskin acted alone, determined to show the city’s Muslims what she thought of them. In a short exchange with journalists in court, Suskin said she did not care about worldwide reactions to her action. As Suskin was being charged this week, another anti-Islamic incident in Hebron threatened what the Arab media were calling a religious war in the city that is a stronghold of the fundamentalist Hamas group. The Al-Yaakubiya girls school was vandalized over the weekend, and amid the demolished furniture were torn copies of the Koran. Israeli soldiers often use part of the Hebron school as a base of operations, and Rajoub did not hesitate in declaring that the Israel Defense Force was responsible for the vandalism. Israel vigorously denied Monday that any of its soldiers were involved in the incident. What remained unclear was how long the violence would continue — and how far it would spread.

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