Palestinians wait for war in ghost city

The West Bank is a powderkeg waiting for a spark. Patrick Cockburn reports
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Hebron - People here are not expecting peace. Aiman Said normally sells spices from a stall in the old city. "I expect we will get nothing out of the summit. America is supporting Israel all the time. In Hebron, things are getting worse every day," he said.

Ever since the Israeli army clamped a 20-hour-a-day curfew on this West Bank city, lifted only between 5am and 9am, Mr Said has not been able to set up his stall. He says: "Most of the time we sit at home watching the news." At this moment an Israeli jeep drove down the road and a loudhailer blared: "Go home. Those who break the law will be arrested."

Mr Said ran into an alleyway and hid until the jeep had gone. Later we asked if he thought the Palestinian intifada (uprising) would restart? The spice merchant, a youngish looking man in his thirties, shrugged his shoulders and said: "Since peace started in Oslo [in 1993] we have had no peace."

Others in Hebron are more forthright about what will happen if Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, brings nothing concrete back from Washington. "The Palestinians have rediscovered the intifada," says Khalid Amayreh, a journalist with Islamic sympathies in his office above Hebron's deserted vegetable market. "Seventy people were killed and 1,200 wounded last week. After such sacrifices you can't tell people to go back to work. If Arafat fails, people will go back on to the streets."

Pent up in their houses for six days, the streets empty apart from Israeli soldiers and armed Jewish settlers, Palestinians in Hebron feel the diplomatic negotiations of the last three years have brought them nothing. "What you have got here is acute frozen rage, a powder-keg, a tinder-box," says Mr Amyreh. "There will be spectacular violence, not just in the West Bank but in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Petakh Tikva.

Hebron is the one large city of the West Bank, apart from East Jerusalem, from which the Israeli army did not withdraw at the beginning of the year. The so-called redeployment was delayed because of 450 militant Jewish settlers in the old city. Then it was postponed because of the suicide bombs planted by Islamic militants, and then again because of the Israeli election in May.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton and Mr Arafat both asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to set a date for the pull-out (although the army will still occupy 20 per cent of the city to protect the settlers). So far, the Israeli leader has refused to do so. Inside the municipality building, Mustafa Natsheh, the mayor of Hebron, says: "All we ask is for the Israelis to keep the agreement they signed a year ago." The curfew is a disaster, he adds, with shortages of food, milk and medicine. "Children can't get to school. It is a city of ghosts."

In the street outside Mr Natsheh's office are two teenagers who have broken curfew to make a complaint to the mayor. Abed Rauf Awewi, 14, and Bajat Abed Wahab Awewi, 16, say that two days before they had been sitting outside their house when they were accused of throwing stones and arrested by Israeli border guards, a paramilitary unit. They were taken an Israeli post and forced to sit in the sun. Bajat said: "When we asked for a drink the guards, who were Druze [members of an Islamic sect who who often serve in the Israeli armed forces] gave us a plastic bottle full of urine and beat us until we drank it."

None of this was likely to elicit much sympathy among the Israeli settlers a few hundred yards away. Noam Arnon, the settler spokesman, said: "I don't believe Mr Netanyahu will take the army out of Hebron. The PLO has shown that it has guns and is full of murderers and killers." If the army did withdraw then Mr Arnon, recalling the massacre of 64 Jews by Palestinians in 1929, expected war.

Rafi Chaiken, another settler, asked if he felt any sympathy for the 100,000 Palestinians not allowed to leave their homes, said: "No. If they are shut in their houses it is because they are a danger to us." He claimed that Israelis had built many schools for Palestinians in Hebron. On a hill a hundred yards away, stood an empty girls' primary school which settlers tried to close earlier in the year by spitting and screaming curses at the children.

So far, there have been few protests in Hebron, apart from some stone- throwing yesterday morning. The only demonstration was in the nearby Palestinian town of Doura, where, unlike in Hebron, Palestinian police have control of local security. A sergeant was watching a march assemble in support of Mr Arafat. Asked what he would do if Israeli soldiers opened fire, he said: "We have no orders, but we will not stand by and watch."