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Murder adds to Hamas support

'ARAFAT is no good. He gave up the gun. The people here support Hamas. They support violence against the Jews, the scum of the earth. They support an Islamic solution.'

Abed, a 50-year-old merchant, spoke huddled in his grocery store in semi-darkness, surrounded by his family. The store gates were bolted against the deathly quiet of the streets outside, where only army trucks occasionally rumbled past.

The family were sitting out a curfew, clamped on Hebron since Sunday when news broke that an Israeli border guard, Nissim Toledano, had been kidnapped by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. It was to be expected that Hebron, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, would be swiftly punished for the kidnapping, which ended on Tuesday with the discovery of the border guard's stabbed body.

Like the Gaza strip, Hebron is a Hamas stronghold. Until four years ago the town was largely the territory of Fatah, the mainstream of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. But seeking out the underdog in the underdog town, Hamas has gained ground, winning six out of 11 seats in recent chamber of commerce elections.

'People are poor here. They go to the mosques for comfort. They keep old customs. They read the Koran. Palestinians in Jerusalem have forgotton the Koran and become like Jews,' said Asmi, 25, a construction worker. 'Now Hamas has proved they are strong. People here will support them more.'

The curfew and the mass arrests have only inflamed the new support for Hamas. 'There is nobody here who does not support the killing of the Israeli. Anyone who does should himself be killed. We suffer from these bastards. They take our land then they come and shout at us in the night like barking dogs,' said Abed. 'Violence is the only way now until we die. The negotiations in Washington are another plot to eliminate the Palestinians.'

The curfew, with its army checkpoints and spiked bars on roads, has severed Hebron, just 20 miles south of Jerusalem, from its hinterland. The closer to the town, the quieter it becomes. In the centre, soldiers swing guns at passers- by and scowl.

The 550 or so Jews who live among the 65,000 Arabs are allowed free passage and take advantage of the shuttered Arab shops to spray Stars of David.

They are the settler radical fringe, come to restore a Jewish presence in Judaism's second holiest city, the site where Abraham is buried. It is in the Ibrahmi mosque, built over that site, that Hamas has found so many willing followers.

'At 10pm on Sunday the jeeps came,' said Abed. 'They said 'don't leave your homes until further notice'.' Hebron is used to curfews but this is the strictest they remember. For the first time the bakeries have been shut down.

Abed has no permit to trade under curfew. But people close by sneak out to buy provisions. Now he has run out of flour, he says.

'When the curfew came everyone in the neighbourhood bought two chickens from the supermarket, but his permit was taken away. We don't know what has happened to the owner now,' said Abed, as an elderly man banged on the gates outside, asking for tea.

The children have not gone to school, the adults have lost pay because they are not working. Abed's brother, Ahmad, said he was planning to skirt the roadblocks to get to his job in east Jerusalem.

The curfew means there is little to do but talk. They talk a lot about Nissim Toledano. Khaled, 10, says there was no choice but to kill the border guard. 'When the deadline passed . . . ' and then he chopped his hand smartly downwards and giggled to his friends.

They also talk a lot about the arrests in Hebron that followed. 'They just take anybody they can find. People arrested for throwing stones during the intifada - they pick them up again.'

Sitting among the cans of tomatoes and the boxes of tissues, wearing dressing-gowns to keep out the cold, they also talk about an Islamic state.

(Photograph omitted)