Israeli settlers see their world crumble

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"On all sides we will be surrounded by armed Palestinians, so there is a sense of abandonment," says David Wilder, one of the leaders of 500 Jewish settlers in Hebron.

As Palestinians hold their first election on Saturday, the most militant of the Israeli settlers see their world crumbling, but fear there is little they can do about it. The Israeli army in Hebron will redeploy in March, turning the rest of the city over to Palestinian control. Danny Hizmy, a deeply religious settler, says: "Rabin's assassination stopped the protests by our people." He laments that leaders of the right do nothing because they fear being accused of involvement in the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. He says: "The government has given six or seven cities to the Arabs in three weeks, which is terrible."

There is not a lot the settlers can do to halt the process. On Saturday they will rally in Zion Square in west Jerusalem to protest against Palestinians in the city being allowed to vote, on the grounds that this threatens Israeli sovereignty. In theory they could cause trouble in Palestinian east Jerusalem by swamping the post offices being used as polling stations, but the Hebron settlers said they did not plan to disrupt the election.

An incident overnight just north of Hebron provided the only real chance of halting the Israeli army withdrawal - gunmen in a blue Mercedes fired automatic weapons into a car carrying two Israeli officers, killing both of them.

The attack ended a period of several months when there have been very few Israelis killed by Palestinians. The Israeli security services had been expecting an attack, but assumed it would probably be by a suicide bomber in revenge for the killing of Yahya Ayyash, the Palestinian bomb maker, in Gaza two weeks ago. The shooting of the soldiers may not be direct retaliation but it seems to be part of an upsurge of violence since Ayyash died.

David Wilder, not a man given to exaggerating the pacific intentions of his Palestinian neighbours, says: "I am sure that most of the Arabs don't like the killings last night - because they know that it might delay the withdrawal." This is probably correct. The attack might also be a protest against the election, but a poll by a Palestinian organisation yesterday predicted a 80 per cent turn out by one million voters.

Fears among settlers about the future of Jerusalem may also be realised. Ehud Olmert, the right-wing mayor of the city, says Israelis and Palestinians have held talks in Europe about its permanent status, though official negotiations only start in May. Yossi Beilin, a minister close to Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, said that Israel must hold talks with the Palestinians on the issue.That would only happen if Israel met the Palestinian demand also to have a capital in Jerusalem.