Israel's wall cements the division of Hebron

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The appearance of enormous concrete blocks, each a metre square, blocking Shallalah and Bab al-Zawiya streets in the centre of Hebron, marked the moment the city of Hebron joined Belfast and Nicosia on the list of the world's most divided cities.

The Israeli army placed the blocks there overnight, in effect cutting Hebron in two, divided by a no-man's land of shuttered shops and a roadway strewn with the stones hurled by Palestinian boys at Israeli soldiers.

A wall of concrete cubes has also been built closing the entrance to an Israeli position in the Yaccubiya school, where the silhouettes of Israeli soldiers can be seen behind the broken windows. Although sporadic rioting has gone on in Hebron for weeks, it is only this week-end that Israel has physically partitioned the city.

The step is a sign of the failure of the protocol on Hebron signed in January after three months of American meditation. Under the agreement, Israel was to remain in control of 20 per cent of the Palestinian city of 120,000 in order to guard 400 Jewish settlers, but there was to be free passage between the two sectors. This has now ended.

In a further sign of the growing division of the city, General Uzi Dayan, the Israeli commander for the West Bank, yesterday ordered Palestinian shopkeepers on the Israeli side to close for the fourth day in a row, although they have nothing to do with the rioters.

This is evidently a collective punishment of the 20,000 Palestinians in Israeli- controlled Hebron, aimed at putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority to stop the street fighting.

Israeli soldiers injured 16 Palestinians with rubber bullets yesterday, including five Palestinian journalists working for Western news organisations. A spokesman for the Foreign Press Association said this was unlikely to have been an accident, though Moshe Fogel, the Israeli government spokesman, specifically denied that Israeli soldiers were deliberately targeting journalists.

Mustafa Natshe, the mayor of Hebron, said the riots were inevitable given the frustration of Palestinians. He said: "The whole peace process is frozen. It is worse here in Hebron than elsewhere because the Israeli army is in the centre of the city."

Mr Natshe accused Israel of breaking the terms of the Hebron agreement by refusing to allow the Palestinian vegetable market to reopen near to the headquarters of the Jewish settlers. He added that the shopkeepers hit by the rioting were asking for financial help. He said: "I think the Palestinian Authority will compensate them."

There are other signs of Israel increasing the pressure on Palestinians in Hebron. There were long queues of traffic on roads in and out of the city yesterday as Israeli soldiers laboriously checked papers, sometimes forcing drivers to turn back.

In the midst of the fighting the US is building, as it committed itself to do under the terms of the Hebron protocol, a new road between Palestinian- controlled and Israeli-controlled Hebron.

Bulldozers work to the sound of gunshots in front of shuttered Palestinian shops, but it is difficult to believe the road will ever open.