Hebron suffering mass punishment for sins of the few

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The Independent Online

It's lunchtime, and the sun is still high over the West Bank town of Hebron. An Israeli armoured jeep pulls up, blue light flashing. "Close your shop now," barks a soldier's voice through a loud speaker.

It's lunchtime, and the sun is still high over the West Bank town of Hebron. An Israeli armoured jeep pulls up, blue light flashing. "Close your shop now," barks a soldier's voice through a loud speaker.

A young border policeman with an M16 on his lap pushes open the jeep door and glaresout at us. He looks like a student but he has the air of an affronted headmaster.

The elderly man who has just served us coffee slowly pulls his metal shutters across and angrily shuffles off. The few Palestinians on the street scowl as they wander away, but there is nothing they can do.

Yesterday, 30,000 Palestinians in central Hebron were allowed out of their houses for five hours before a curfew began again at 1pm. It has been like this almost every day for more than a month, mass punishment for the sins of a few.

Pledges made by Israel and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, at the US-brokered Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt three weeks ago mean nothing in the curfew zone. There is no sign of the "immediate concrete steps" Prime Minister Ehud Barak had agreed to take to end the closure of the occupied territories.

The pressure is showing. A large pile of household belongings stands in the streets near by. "People are moving out," says Dr Taisir Zahdeh, 50, a gynaecologist. "They don't want to live in a prison any more."

A month ago Israeli troops kicked in Dr Zahdeh's front door and took over the roof of his four-storey house. It overlooks Palestinian-controlled Hebron a few hundred yards below, and the riot zones where young Arabs were hurling rocks and dodging occasional Israeli bullets again yesterday.

The curfew is being imposed in parts of the city under Israeli military control because of the presence of 500 religious Jewish settlers living in four tiny enclaves. While Palestinians are confined to their homes, the settlers - who insist Jews have a biblical right to the land - are free to move around, protected by several thousand soldiers. There has been fighting nearly every night. The settlers say they are regularly fired at. When the shooting starts, the soldiers on the doctor's roof blast away with weapons heavy enough to knock lumps of concrete off the building.

The fact that the Israelis are using his home from which to shoot at his own people is the "maximum humiliation".

There are many stories like Dr Zahdeh's in Hebron, a city of 130,000 Arabs. Azmi Nasereldin, 79, was clearing up yesterday after five Israeli rockets smashed into his home in the early hours, killing his two canaries. Were Palestinians firing at the Israelis from around his home? He denies it.

These stories help explain why extracting the region from crisis is more complex than continuing with the Oslo peace negotiations. Most Palestinians have given up hope that they will fulfil what they see as their right under international law to the return of all land occupied by Israel in 1967.

There will be much hype about peace and relaunching Oslo when Mr Arafat and Mr Barak hold separate meetings with Bill Clinton later this week. But the mood has hardened and there is no quick-fix.

* Two Palestinian teenagers, aged 15 and 17, were shot dead in clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday. A further 30 Palestinians were injured, hospital doctors said. ( AP)

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