Militant settlers threaten violent 'defence': Right-wing Jews are arming against a deal at the peace talks that would leave them isolated. Sarah Helm reports from Hebron

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TWO SMALL Jewish children laughed quietly at Fred Flintstone on television as their father set out his strategy for defending their home in the heart of Arab-populated Hebron on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

He conceded that if the Israeli army withdraws from Hebron it will not be easy to secure the building they call Beit Hadassah, an elegant Arabesque villa, taken over by extremist Jewish settlers 13 years ago. Beit Hadassah, and three other Jewish-occupied buildings in central Hebron, are fortresses, inhabited by 40 families. They live here amidst the town's 100,000 Arabs, in an atmosphere of heightened fear, ostensibly to reinforce Jewish rights to live near the Tomb of Patriarchs, traditional burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a holy site for Jews and Muslims.

For now, Israeli soldiers guard the entrance to Beit Hadassah - just a stone's throw from the crowded

Arab souk. Jewish settlers in Hebron know they will always have support from up on the hillside, where 6,000 Jews inhabit the concrete blocks of Kiryat Arba.

But under the plans for Palestinian autonomy, now being discussed in Washington, the army would withdraw from such centres of Arab population. Furthermore, the army has issued new warnings that it may stop supplying these settlers with arms, which at the moment are issued for self-defence. Yesterday, amid evidence of new 'settler militias', the government said it would confiscate all settler arms used 'illegally'.

'Since the talks re-started we have started to recruit,' says Noam Arnon, 36, a father of six. A tall, lean man, he wears the traditional 'uniform' of the religious militant settler: full beard, prayer strings hanging over faded jeans, and sandals. 'We are training people. Many people are volunteering from all over the country. We are gathering ammunition, some from the army, some from suppliers. We are campaigning. We have a lot of connections with a lot of people.'

The man looks like he means it. What Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, needs to know is: is Noam Arnon for real? And if so, how many like him are among the 120,000 settlers who, under successive Labour and Likud governments, have been allowed, contrary to international law, to build homes on occupied lands?

The Rabin government is a fragile coalition. The Prime Minister dares not further alienate hardliners of the religious right, who have large support in the settlements. But neither can he win Palestinian agreement on autonomy without radically re-thinking the status of settlements, which for now, he says, will remain under Israeli control.

Perhaps as many as half the settlers are not religious but Jews who moved in for a cheap house. Their resistance will be weak. But thousands of settlers proclaim their faith in Israel's right to 'Eretz Israel' - the biblical land of Israel from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean. The religious settlers are demoralised, isolated and confused with no clear leadership. Under Labour, 'Eretz Israel' has become a discredited ideal and settlers are increasingly marginalised, particularly since the closure in March of the occupied territories.

Their vulnerability has been exposed by the tangible proposals emerging from the peace talks. A plan for a Palestinian police force has been scorned by settlers, who have promised to gun down 'any armed PLO terrorist in whatever uniform'. Voices on the liberal left are talking of the need to start dismantling settlements if autonomy plans are to work at all. And Mr Rabin has said recently that Israeli sovereignty over religious sites in the West Bank is not essential.

Settler language has become suddenly more radical. Zvi Shiloah, an MP for the ultra-nationalist Moledet (Homeland) party, has compared Labour ministers to Nazis. Rabbis have called for war. According to a poll published in the daily Ma'ariv newspaper, 17 per cent of Israeli settlers would use violence to resist autonomy. 'I have always said we will have to pass through civil war if we are to break from the past,' said Israel Shahak, a radical Israeli commentator and academic.

Nowhere is settler militancy more likely to emerge than in Hebron, where Jewish-Muslim bloodletting has become almost a cyclical ritual and vigilantism is a way of life. It is in Hebron that the so-called Jewish Underground emerged in the early Eighties, in the wake of the peace agreement with Egypt. The Underground perpetrated anti-Arab violence, including attacks on five Arab mayors, which left two crippled.

In Jerusalem, the Interior Minister, Arye Deri, resigned yesterday, setting off a government crisis that Mr Rabin warned could derail Middle East peace moves. Rabbi Deri, of the ultra- religious Shas party, which has six seats in the Knesset, quit the cabinet after Mr Rabin failed to remove the outspoken left-wing Education Minister, Shulamit Aloni.

(Photograph omitted)