Hebron waits for the worst after the poll

Early yesterday morning Walid Mohammed Abu Damhash, a 30-year-old farmer, was weeding his vegetables in the field in front of his house on the outskirts of Hebron. "Suddenly two Israeli officers turned up and said they were going to build a road over my land," he said. "We asked if we could have time to pick the vegetables, but they said 'no'."

A few minutes later three yellow Caterpillar bulldozers and two mechanical grabs, guarded by a squad of soldiers, tore up Mr Damhash's field, heaping the reddish earth into a mound. Watching from a track 20 yards away Mr Damhash said: "There are 20 people in my family and we all depended on that land." Beside him his 60-year-old uncle, Abed, wiped his eyes as he watched the bulldozers.

Even before Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the right-wing Likud leader, was elected prime minister of Israel last week the situation in Hebron was bad. The demolition of Mr Damhash's field was agreed by the Palestinian Authority and its leader Yasser Arafat as part of the Oslo 2 accord whereby Israel would build roads for its settlers over Palestinian land, and, in return, would partially withdraw its soldiers from Hebron.

The bypass roads already cut swaths through the vineyards around Hebron, a city of 100,000 Palestinians, but the election result puts in doubt the Israeli pull-out from 85 per cent of the city. This was delayed because of the suicide bombings in Israel and further postponed because of the election. Mr Netanyahu said he was against a pull-out, but would fulfil Israel's international obligations. Deciding what to do will be his government's first big decision.

Palestinians say Israeli soldiers and settlers have already become more aggressive since Mr Netanyahu won. They saysettlers danced and sang outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs to celebrate his victory , making it impossible for Muslims to pray in the al-Ibrahimi mosque which shares the same site.

Yesterday, Israeli soldiers were stoned by Palestinian boys when the soldiers stopped a Palestinian police car which was legally driving down Shalaleh Street in the city centre.Mohammed Marakah, who owns a grocery store, said: "The soldiers threatened to throw my goods into the street unless I and the other shopkeepers closed." Hani Abedo, 19, working in a shoe-makers, showed bruises on his face where he said he had been hit with a rifle butt.

It is not much by the standards of the intifada but things could get a lot worse. Khalid Amayreh, an Islamic writer living in Hebron, believes they will. He thinks Israel will redeploy its forces, but any good this will do "will be marginalised by a massive intensification of settlement". There are already 400 settlers in the heart of the city whose spokesman says he wants thousands of Jewish families to join them.

Mr Amayreh is not wholly displeased with what he sees as the likely unravelling of the Oslo accords. He said: "There is a very wide gap between the maximum that Likud is likely to offer and the minimum that Labour can accept."

Down at the "Prisoners' Club", Mohammed Hourani, a senior member of Mr Arafat's Fatah organisation, does not disagree. "Netanyahu wants conversations but not negotiations about peace," he said. He did not think Mr Netanyahu would send troops into the Palestinian enclaves, but would seek to control them from outside.

Mr Hourani also feared Likud would try to sideline the Palestinian leadership by doing a deal with Jordan. "The situation with Labour wasn't ideal but it was possible to achieve some things," he said. "I don't think this is true of Likud."

Letters, page 13

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