Palestinians await fruits of Hebron deal

Normality is still some way off for Arabs under Israeli control, reports Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
Euphoria among the Palestinians in the Old City of Hebron at the withdrawal of Israeli troops from 80 per cent of their city did not last long. At dawn, the Palestinian flag was raised over the old Israeli military headquarters, but within hours a scuffle between an Israeli settler and a Palestinian led the Israeli army to declare a curfew in the fifth of Hebron it still controls.

A patrol of paramilitary border police marched down the main road shouting at Palestinians to get back into their houses. A banana seller was too slow and a soldier kicked over his scales. "Things will go badly with us," said Jamal Maraga, selling embroidered dresses from his shop in the kasbah. "People here are frightened."

It was all in sharp contrast to the self-congratulatory tone among Israeli, Palestinian and American officials who had agreed the Hebron protocol last Wednesday. In Tel Aviv, Martyn Indyk, the American ambassador, was confidently telling Israeli journalists that "we are now taking the first step towards the building of trust. Concerning Hebron, the agreement is just and balanced. It gives Jews security and allows Arabs to return to normal life".

The day had begun with a young Palestinian shinning up the antenna on top of the Israeli military headquarters from which Israel has ruled Hebron since 1967. Thousands of Palestinians who had gathered to watch the transfer of power had gone home. Only about 100 remained at 6am to watch Lt Col Gadi, the commander of the Israeli brigade in Hebron, hand over to a Palestinian officer.

Unlike the Israeli withdrawal from Nablus in 1995, there was no burning of Israeli flags. Within hours 400, Palestinian police were deploying, emphasising their presence by vigorously directing the sparse traffic. More effectively, some 1,000 members of the Preventive Security Service, the largest of the nine Palestinian intelligence services, led by Jibril Rajoub, were to be seen in every street. Entering the Israeli headquarters, Mr Rajoub, a former prisoner, said: "I was detained here five times.

This is the first time I enter as a free man."

The arrival of Palestinian security men is considered a mixed blessing. As Palestinians streamed through the Mamluk gateway into the al-Ibrahimi mosque, a sermon was being broadcast, saying: "We don't want the Palestinian Authority to use arbitrary measures like the Israelis did." In his office, Rafiq al-Natsche, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said: "We are very worried by any monopoly of power by the intelligence services."

Mr Natsche's main complaint was not about the protocol on Hebron, but the agreement to partition the city reached in 1995. "It was a big mistake by our leaders," he said. Himself a member of Fatah and former PLO ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mr Natsche added that when the Palestinian Council met to discuss the latest accord on Hebron "there were only a few copies of the agreement available - and none were in Arabic". He thought the new Palestinian police would be acceptable in Hebron "but if the settlers kill some Palestinians then the people will expect the police to support them".

By yesterday morning friction was already building up. Noam Arnon, leader of the 400 settlers, was standing on the edge of the road, saying the Hebron accord marked "the surrender of the free world to terrorism. The Oslo process brings blood. To sign an agreement with the PLO is like signing with Saddam Hussein. It is a cruel regime."

For the 20,000 Palestinians in Hebron still under Israeli control the gains of the settlers may be more evident than their losses. When a scuffle started police and soldiers pushed forward into the vegetable market. The crowd of onlookers hurled fruit and vegetables. The army then announced a curfew.

The settlers also seemed anxious to provoke an incident. Shani Horovitz, 37, a settler activist from Brooklyn, stopped her car and said Palestinians had threatened her. She shouted: "I want my army to protect me." She then stood in the road, blocking vehicles while soldiers tried to persuade her to move. Around her the border police enforced the curfew against Palestinians but not against the settlers. In the city centre, empty apart from army patrols, there was little sign of Mr Indyk's promised return to normal life for the Palestinians.