Israeli army's 'hot winter' bears down on Hebron

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The Independent Online

Driving through Hebron is a nerve-wracking affair. At every junction the drivers pause uncertainly, and ask passers-by if the road ahead is clear. From time to time gunfire is heard. The news of where is safe spreads in a dangerous, uncertain series of Chinese whispers.

Driving through Hebron is a nerve-wracking affair. At every junction the drivers pause uncertainly, and ask passers-by if the road ahead is clear. From time to time gunfire is heard. The news of where is safe spreads in a dangerous, uncertain series of Chinese whispers.

At times you turn a corner to see a tank, or a foot patrol of soldiers ahead. Often the first sign is when the street scene suddenly breaks up: children who were playing football suddenly start running. For Hebron is a city where a full-scale military operation is taking place in the midst of people's lives.

At other times children throw stones at the soldiers. Sometimes the soldiers respond by shooting at them with rubber-coated steel bullets, which can kill at close range. None of the locals seems sure when curfews are in force, or where.

Hebron has become the new flashpoint. Tensions have long been simmering here, where some 400 Jewish settlers, heavily guarded by the army, live in a city of more than 300,000 Palestinians. Now the tensions are boiling over.

In recent months there has been a spate of killings of Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in the area round Hebron. They include the deaths of 12 Israelis, nine of them soldiers and paramilitary border police, who were ambushed by Palestinian militants in Hebron in November, four Jewish settlers killed by Palestinian gunmen who broke into a settlement south of Hebron in December, and last month a settler killed in the outskirts, and three soldiers whose car was ambushed outside the city.

Last week, shortly after Ariel Sharon won the elections, the army was sent into Hebron for an operation it calls "Hot Winter". The aim, the army said, was to dismantle the "infrastructure of terror" that it claimed had grown up in Hebron. One of the first things it did was to demolish the main vegetable market in the city centre, tanks driving over the wooden stalls. Three of the market traders sat yesterday around a metal drum filled with burning wood, sheltering from the icy wind that whips over the hills of Hebron in winter. Around them lay rotting vegetables. "I lost 20,000 shekels [£2,500]," said Walid Qafishi. His colleague Hamza Sarsur said: "The soldiers told us the market was going to be demolished and that we had one hour to remove our vegetables. But when we started the border police stopped us. They sprayed tear gas and ordered us to go. Then the army came and destroyed the whole market."

An Israeli army spokeswoman said: "The place where terror blossoms is where our armoured vehicles cannot reach. Destroying the market was the only way we could reach this terror." The market did block a road. There were, however, other routes that were not blocked. Elsewhere in Hebron it is the Israeli army that is blocking roads. Huge mounds of dirt and broken bits of concrete have been piled up blocking main roads, apparently to hinder the free movement of Palestinian militants around the city.

The army is hunting and arresting alleged militants. It is also demolishing houses around the city. In the past, the bulldozers flattened the family homes of suicide bombers and other militants. But the latest demolitions in Hebron – 22 buildings in a single day – are part of a new phenomenon. The Israeli authorities say these houses are being demolished because they were built without permission.

Beside the ruins of one demolished building – an extension to his house – Moaz Sultan described how, last month, a Jewish settler, Natanel Ozeri, was killed by militants. He lived in a settler outpost a short distance away. The settlers are trying to take over the land here, an area populated entirely by Palestinians – as they have already successfully done in parts of the Old City. After Mr Ozeri was killed the settlers attacked the Palestinians' houses, Mr Sultan said.

The Palestinians claim they are almost never given building permits by the Israeli authorities – this part of the city is under official Israeli control. Many settler outposts are also built without permission.

* Two Palestinian gunmen attacked an army outpost in the West Bank early yesterday, just as soldiers were practising a drill for such an assault. Two soldiers were killed before troops shot dead the attackers.

In the Gaza Strip, random fire from an Israeli helicopter killed two Palestinian nurses. Palestinian doctors said the two male nurses were at their workplace, a home for the elderly. In Tulkarem in the West Bank, soldiers killed an unarmed Palestinian, and in northern Israel, police killed an Arab citizen after he stabbed an officer.

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