Hebron tense as killing spreads

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AS tensions built up again yesterday in Hebron, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Amer Sider, a Palestinian metal merchant, watched through the jagged panes of his front window as a motley procession passed by his house. The window was shattered a few days ago by gunfire when a Jewish settler retaliated at Palestinian stone-throwers.

In front of Mr Sider's house passed about 30 settlers, with Uzi sub-machine-guns and M16 rifles slung on their backs, led by their 'tour guide', with microphone and heavy armed guard. 'Oaks were here in Hebron the time of Abraham,' said the guide, stopping in front of an oak tree. 'It is written in Genesis.' To the front, a dozen Israeli soldiers had panned out to secure the way ahead. At the rear were more soldiers, and a line of armoured cars and jeeps.

The Jews called the procession a 'conducted tour' of the town's historical, natural and archeological sites. 'We are on a mission to prove the Jewish claim to the land, and show the Arabs we will walk everywhere,' said one 'tourist', a pistol sticking from his belt.

The Palestinians called the tour, coming after a week of bloodshed in the town, a deliberate provocation. The soldiers didn't know what to make of it. They just knew their presence was unpopular with both sides. Palestinians believe the army is only protecting Jewish settlers. And settlers believe the soldiers are there to prevent Jewish attacks on Arabs. One week ago a Palestinian was shot dead by settlers in Hebron. On Monday two Jewish settlers were killed by Palestinian gunmen. And yesterday three Palestinians were killed in Hebron by settlers.

As the procession wound past, Mr Sider and his family, could only cower indoors. For four days he has been imprisoned at home by a curfew. Like the other 100,000 Palestinians here he has been barred from walking in his own home town since violence erupted.

As hopes of peace are tentatively being planted elsewhere in the occupied territories, Hebron remains a desolate place. On Monday Israel is due to start withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, and there is hope that in these limited areas a new Jewish-Arab understanding could evolve. Later, self-rule is to be applied to the rest of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including Hebron.

But here and in other hard- line West Bank towns, tension has increased. Some 5,000 militant settlers live in the heart of this Arab town. Separation of the two communities is inconceivable. Here the Arabs and Jews relate to each other only through hatred.

'Separation between Jews and Arabs in Hebron can never happen,' said 'tourist' David Wilder, as the procession made its way towards the site where Jews say Abraham first settled in Hebron. 'We will never leave. Today we are here to demonstrate that we must be close to our religious sites.'

Another settler added: 'If they bring self-rule to Hebron it will be war.'