Israeli settlers prepare to resist eviction: Hebron Jews react to suggestions that the government may force hardliners to quit occupied territories

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IN A kitchen in Beit Hadassah, a small Jewish settlement in the centre of Hebron, the settlers were cooking lunch for the off- duty soldiers. Danny Hizmi, a Yemenite Jew, was preparing malawah - pancake - for five of the hundreds of young infantry soldiers posted to guard this imposing three-storey building.

The settlers and soldiers were laughing and joking. They were relaxed in the knowledge that Arabs all around them were barred at home under curfew and watched from every roof by army snipers. Soldiers were even helping a settler family which had just arrived to live in Beit Hadassah carry boxes of religious books into the building. And twice a day a military convoy transports Jews from Beit Hadassah through the winding Arab streets to nearby settlements and on to Jerusalem.

'If one of these boys tried to tell me to leave I would give him some sweets and tell him to go away,' laughed Mr Hizmi. 'But we are all friends here - these soldiers would never tell us to leave.'

Taking his pancake, a young soldier in a skullcap, an Orthodox Jew who studied in a settlement college before joining the army, said he would follow orders if the decision to evict was made. 'But I don't believe it will happen - I don't believe it should happen - it's just talk,' he said. His friends agreed.

Since the Hebron massacre, perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, the possibility of evicting settlers has entered the mainstream political debate in Israel for the first time since Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Although Goldstein lived in the 5,000-strong Hebron enclave of Kiryat Arba, it is the 22 families in Beit Hadassah, and the 300 other families living in the centre of Hebron, who would be uprooted first. They are the most militant of all.

Those Jews who took over Beit Hadassah in 1979 were driven as much by their obsession with securing the 'Jewish continuity' of the building as by their determination to live close to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In 1929, the entire Jewish community which then lived in Hebron, numbering 67, was massacred in Beit Hadassah, and in the basement is a memorial to the slaughter.

While Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, has considerable personal dislike for such settlers, he has done little as yet to make them feel insecure. Since the massacre no action has been taken against Beit Hadassah settlers, who continue to parade through Hebron's deserted streets, strutting with guns.

The Oslo accords, signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, stated that Jewish settlements would stay put until after Palestinian autonomy had been established. Mr Rabin insists that Israel can concede no changes in the accords, or the entire agreement may fall apart. Furthermore, say government sources, the Prime Minister fears that to uproot any settlement now would be seen as giving in to Palestinian demands in the wake of the Hebron massacre, bringing the government under attack from its own right- wing opposition. The forcible removal of some settlers could also spark a voluntary exodus of settlers from other areas of the West Bank, weakening Mr Rabin's negotiating position in the future.

Mr Rabin is unsure how the army would respond to calls for forcible eviction. In recent years the number of Orthodox Jews serving as officers in elite units, which often serve in the occupied territories, has increased significantly. 'It will be impossible to evict us,' says Noam Arnon, a long-time resident. 'The army would not do it. Thousands of Jews would come to protect us - to die for us.'

Nevertheless, there are signs that Mr Rabin is ready to allow the debate about eviction to gather pace, and that government insistence that no settler be removed - or compensated for moving - is eroding. Perhaps not 'compensation' but 'humanitarian assistance' is suddenly being offered by the Housing Ministry to those settlers who cry for help to move.

Both Mr Rabin, and Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, are making clear to the Israeli public the financial and security cost of settlements like Beit Hadassah. More bloodshed could swing Mr Rabin towards eviction.

(Photograph omitted)