Behind the Headlines: Two Years After Hebron Pact, Israelis and Arabs Remain Wary

Two years after Israeli troops withdrew from most of Hebron, the West Bank town remains a powder keg.

Some 150,000 Palestinians live side by side with about 500 Jewish settlers as they have for years — warily.

Each group claims a historical right to live there, and each group denies that right to the other.

Palestinians view Hebron as one of their most important West Bank population centers. The settlers cite the Bible for their attachment, wanting to live their lives near the town’s holy sites, particularly the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the biblical burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs.

The two sides wait for something to alter the uneasy status quo. But little has changed since the night of Jan. 14-15, 1997, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat reached the Hebron Agreement during a summit held at the Erez Crossing separating Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The agreement was trumpeted as a landmark in Israeli-Palestinian relations. For the first time, a Likud government had agreed to give up parts of Greater Israel — and from the City of the Patriarchs at that. And, in another first, the Palestinian Authority recognized the right of the Jews to live in Hebron.

There were calls at the time from the Israeli left for the settlers to be removed from Hebron, but Netanyahu balked at that suggestion.

Instead, some 80 percent of the town was transferred to Palestinian rule, with four Jewish enclaves remaining under Israeli control. A sizable army presence remained in place to protect the settlers — but they repeatedly became a target of Palestinians protesting the stalled peace process.

At the time of the agreement’s signing, there were dire predictions of bloodshed from both sides.

“If things deteriorate into a new war, it will not be our fault,” Noam Arnon, the spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community, told JTA at the time. “It will be because of the terrorists who are out to get us.”

This week, Arnon conceded that the situation was not as bad as he had predicted, but he added, “There is no peace.”

Citing a familiar settler complaint, he charged that terrorists repeatedly find shelter in the Palestinian-ruled portion of Hebron — and that Palestinian security forces protect them.

In the two years since the agreement was signed, the Jewish community in Hebron has lost two of its residents to Palestinian terrorists.

In August, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan was murdered in his sleep at his home in the Tel Rumeida Jewish enclave. Hamas activist Salem Rajab Sarsur, a 29-year-old father of five who later confessed to the murder, subsequently found shelter in the self-rule sector.

Weeks after committing the murder, he threw hand grenades at Israeli soldiers patrolling Hebron on Yom Kippur.

He was taken into custody by Israeli officials in October, after he hurled two grenades at the central bus station in Beersheba, wounding at least 64 Israelis.

A few days after the Beersheba attack, another Hebron resident, Danny Vargas, was murdered. His assailant, Jamal Jadallah, managed to flee jail after being detained by Palestinian police in Hebron. He remains at large.

And in another recent act of terror, three Israeli women were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a van traveling between the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba and Hebron. A terrorist who escaped a Palestinian-run prison near the West Bank town of Nablus was behind the attack, Palestinian sources were quoted as saying at the time.

Citing these incidents, Arnon said, “The Palestinian part of Hebron has turned into a base of licensed terrorist attacks.”

Meanwhile, Hebron’s Palestinian population remains equally unhappy with the way matters stand.

The Israeli army only recently lifted a curfew and a blockade on all entry points to Hebron that had been imposed in the wake of the van attack.

The town’s mayor, Mustafa Natshe, places the blame for all the tensions squarely on the backs of the settlers.

“They are harassing us day and night,” Natshe said in an interview this week with JTA. “They don’t want to live in peace with us.”

Referring to the approximately 30,000 Arabs living in the Israeli-controlled portion of Hebron, Natshe said, “They are suffering. They don’t feel as if they are part of the peace process.”

Perhaps most painful to Arab residents is the continued closure of the main thoroughfare, Shuhada, or Martyrs, Street.

The street was closed to Palestinian traffic as a security measure – - Palestinians say it was purely punitive — after Dr. Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians worshiping at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in February 1994.

According to the Hebron Agreement, the street was to be gradually reopened to Palestinians traffic within four months after the pact was signed.

Two years later, the closure remains.

“Why, they don’t even let our pedestrians pass,” Natshe said of the Israeli soldiers guarding a checkpoint at one end of the street.

Arnon, for his part, said another clause in the agreement, which guarantees free access to four Jewish sites in the Palestinian-ruled section, also remains unimplemented.

On one point both sides apparently agree — they both don’t trust the Netanyahu government.

“As long as this government stays in power, I don’t believe there will be any kind of progress,” said Natshe. “But I haven’t lost hope for the future. Sooner or later, Palestinians and Israelis will find a way to live together.”

For his part, Arnon is plainly concerned by the signing in October of the Wye accord. Although the agreement is now suspended, Arnon eyes with suspicion Netanyahu’s willingness to turn over additional West Bank areas to the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the accord.

“The government should have learned a lesson from the Hebron Accord,” said Arnon. “It should not trust the Palestinians.”

Arnon remains suspicious of Netanyahu, even if he wins Israel’s May elections.

“I no longer know whom I should fear more,” he said of the various candidates running for prime minister. “True, the present government shows more sympathy toward the Jewish community of Hebron, but the Israeli right is capable of carrying out more dangerous withdrawals.”

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