Hebron neighbours spit hate across the garden fence

HANA ABU HEIKAL threw back the net curtains from her bedroom window. 'There are the soldiers in my orchard,' she exclaimed. 'There is the road- block. Now you see how I can't get into my own own house.'

Then she tilted her neatly coiffed head to peer down towards her neighbours in the Jewish settlement of Tel Rumeidah, a row of dingy caravans across the garden fence.

Sprawled beyond was Hebron's Old City - zoned off nowadays into sectors for Arabs and for Jews - with the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the middle distance. In the Jewish sector, Hebrew graffiti had been scrawled on a wall: 'Long live Baruch Goldstein.'

Mrs Abu Heikal suddenly bristled; she had spotted the enemy. 'That one looks quite polite and kind. But she is the devil.'

A small, scarved figure surrounded by children came briefly into view. 'She lets her children attack mine. She has many children, she is always pregnant. They throw stones,' she said, drawing her four-year- old child to her, as if a rock might come hurtling through the window. 'I shout abuse every day - all the names I can think of. I protest to the military governor, the mayor and Arafat. But it does no good.'

This is the Hebron conflict in all its banality. International observers are to be deployed in Hebron to mediate, it was decided last week. But no Italian, Norwegian or Dane could mediate in a neighbours' dispute as miserable as this.

In the caravan nearest to Mrs Abu Heikal's house, Bracha Ben Yitzhak, pregnant with her ninth child, moves around a kitchen wiping a line of children's noses. She doesn't like the caravan - it is cramped, cold in winter and surrounded by hostile Arabs. But she is as determined to stay in her home, as is Mrs Abu Heikal. 'I don't care how long she says she has lived in her house. The Bible says the land here is ours.' Her eight-year- old proudly displays the yellow star pinned to her floral frock. 'To show she lives in a ghetto,' whispers her mother. Mrs Ben Yitzhak's hatred is more controlled than Mrs Abu Heikal's. She doesn't give the Arabs much thought, she says. 'We do not try to have good relations. I know the name Heikal - but I don't know who they are. The kids fight, but so do all kids,' she said, as eight-year-old Yehudit aimed at her with his toy gun. 'The Arabs don't frighten me. I let the children walk the streets on their own. If you feel this is your home, you are not afraid.'

There was a time when proponents of Jewish settlement in the centre of Hebron used to talk of 'peaceful coexistence', as if enclaves such as Tel Rumeidah might become a kind of Middle Eastern Brookside, where mothers would swap gossip, and kids would all play together. But after 10 years of living next door to one another, Hana and Bracha know nothing of each other at all. Neither woman grew up with a reason to hate. Bracha Ben Yitzhak, 36, whose father came to Israel from Sarajevo in 1949, was not brought up as a religious Jew. Her parents lived in a communal farm near Jerusalem. It was only after she left the army that she became interested in 'Jewish culture'; then she turned more and more to religion.

She married a religious scholar, Gabriel Ben Yitzhak, an immigrant from Finchley, north London. Her husband suggested that they move to Hebron - first to Kiryat Arba, the large fortress settlement, then to the centre of the town, where in the 1980s settlers had squatted or evicted Arabs to reclaim houses lived in by Jews several decades before.

Hana Abu Heikal, 35, grew up in a Hebron without Jews. She says she has never been religious. 'But I will kill someone who tries to take over my house,' she exclaims. Her family had owned land in Tel Rumeidah for 200 years. As a child, she was aware that there were certain houses and plots of land in Hebron that were called 'Jewish'. 'Nobody expected the Jews to come back,' she says. 'I don't recall anyone talking of it.'

One day in 1984, Hana came home from her work as a beautician in the town centre to see bulldozers at work. 'In one day they had put up washing lines, hung up the washing and put flowers in the windows. They were clearly here to stay,' she says.

Before the Abu Heikals could protest, the most militant settlers of all had moved in next door. Tel Rumeidah was to become the headquarters of Kach, the racist anti-Arab movement, now banned by Israel and which counted Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Hebron massacre, as a member.

From the moment the settlers arrived, the Abu Heikals have been trapped. Their house sits at one end of a dead-end road. Next comes the settlement, and at the open end of the road is a full military checkpoint - 'security' for the Jews. To get home the Abu Heikals have to pass through a checkpoint, before walking past the settlers' front doors. 'When the massacre happened we went to give blood, but the soldiers wouldn't let us past,' says Hana. 'The Jews called us dogs. We could hear them laughing and celebrating.'

Since the massacre, the family have been unable to move at all. At first, they were confined under curfew. To get out to a shop, they had to traipse through a field behind the house in order to bypass the soldiers. Hebron is full of new back-tracks, trodden by Arabs circling checkpoints.

Now the curfew is lifted, the Abu Heikals remain trapped - locked in by a new security cordon thrown around all the settlements in the new Jewish sector. To get home, the they must have special permits. 'I refuse to have one,' says Mrs Abu Heikal. 'Why should I have a permit to come to my own house?'

(Photograph omitted)

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