Hebron fears the worst as settlers hang on

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"For Hebron this is not a good agreement," says Jamal Shubaki, chief representative here of Yasser Arafat, the morning after the terms for a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank were agreed. The deal not only allows 400 Israeli settlers to stay in the heart of Hebron, he says, "but gives them a big district under Israeli occupation".

Mr Shubaki, local head of Fatah, the main Palestinian political organisation led by Mr Arafat, says he supports the peace deal as a whole "but in Hebron it will make the situation worse for Palestinians". Although Palestinians will get control of part of the city, the settlers' position will be consolidated in the rest. Mr Shubaki threatens that if the lives of ordinary people do not improve, Fatah "may decide not to take part in the elections [to the new Palestinian Council] next year."

Disagreements over the future of Hebron, capital of the southern West Bank, long held up the signing of a deal. In the nine days of talks Mr Arafat appears to have won only limited concessions on the city from Israel. "The people were looking for the settlers to be evacuated in this period," says Mustapha Natshe, mayor of Hebron, noting that the Palestinian delegation to the talks had not yet supplied him with maps showing what is to happen to his city.

He will not be pleased when he sees them. Khalil Toufakji, the Palestinian delegation's map specialist, says a swath of central Hebron, home to a small number of settlers, notorious for their ideological militancy and violence, will remain under full Israeli control. He says he was shocked when the Israelis first showed him a map of the new security zones last week. "It is a good agreement," insists Mr Toufakji, "But not in Hebron."

The fear of Hebronites is that Sunday's agreement locks in place a division of their city which will make it more and more like divided Jerusalem. Even though the 400 settlers are less than 1 per cent of Hebron's population, a zone of about 15 per cent of the city will be guarded by Israeli troops to protect them. To give access for these settlers, and a much larger group of 7,500 on the outskirts of Hebron at Kiryat Arba, bypasses are being built or planned, which means the loss of more Palestinian land.

Critics of Mr Arafat in Hebron, who last week said "they smelled a sell- out", said yesterday that their worst fears were realised. Khalid Amayreh, an Islamic writer and commentator, says: "Hebron is going to be divided into different security zones. If you want to take a load of cabbages into the old city the Israelis will search every box of vegetables."

Could Hebron erupt into violence as the disappointment over the peace agreement sinks in? Mr Amayreh says this depends on who wins the Israeli elections in October next year. If it is the right-wing Likud, which is opposed to the present deal, confrontation will come nearer. If the economic situation and living conditions get worse, "the frozen rage of the people will explode".

Mr Amayreh and Mr Shubaki, from their opposite political points of view, say much will depend on the actions of the settlers themselves, who have an interest in sabotaging the accord by provoking an incident.

As Palestinians tried yesterday to assess what they had gained and lost under the 400-page agreement - Israeli reaction is limited, because yesterday was the Jewish New Year - most felt Hebron was the biggest disappointment. Elsewhere their negotiators got a little more than they had expected earlier in the month.

Mr Toufakji says the Israelis presented three different versions of their maps, which divided the West bank into three different zones, known as "A", "B" and "C". In five Palestinian cities in "A" zone the Palestinians will get full military, police and civil powers. In the 450 towns and villages, home to 68 per cent of West Bankers, which fall into zone "B", the Israelis will retain military powers. In zone "C", which includes settlements, military installations and unoccupied land, Israel has full control.

The Palestinian negotiators in the Egyptian resort of Taba fought hard to ensure that they got more than just the land on which houses stood. Israel then grouped together Palestinian villages into blocks, which in the last days of the negotiations were given larger hinterlands. Surprisingly, these include heavily populated Palestinian areas like Abu Dhis and Azzariya, just east of Jerusalem. This will make it impossible to expand Jerusalem eastwards to the outer ring of Israeli settlement such as one housing 20,000 Israelis at Ma'ale Adumim. Mr Toufakji says: "Some settlements have been left like islands - so maybe the Israelis want to get rid of them."

Many Palestinians believe success or failure of the agreement in reducing friction between Israelis and Palestinians depends on two factors: who wins the next Israeli election and what happens in Hebron. The deal has produced a jigsaw puzzle in which the authority of Israel and the 82-member Palestinian Council is meant to fit together. Mr Amayreh says: "The whole thing depends on good will" and he suspects there will not be enough of it to go round.