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Peace hopes die in Hebron cauldron

As Israel hardens its line, the Palestinians are responding in kind, writes Patrick Cockburn
Hebron - As he holds up the X-ray photograph of Nader Adel el-Saad's head, in the Alia hospital in Hebron, Mousa Abu Maid points to the distinct round shape of a white object near the top of the spine. It is the rubber-coated steel bullet which lodged there after entering the eye.

"Will he survive?" asks Dr Abu Maid, director of hospitals on the West Bank. "It will be difficult. And if he does, he will be paralysed. The bullet is lodged too close to the brain." Another Palestinian, his name still unknown, died from a rubber bullet in the eye a few hours earlier in the hospital.

Dr Abu Maid said a further 91 Palestinians were treated for lesser injuries in the riots which erupted in central Hebron yesterday. The trouble started when two Jews studying at a yeshiva (religious college) maintained by Israeli settlers in Hebron shot dead Assam Rashid Arabeh, 23, in the vegetable market of the old city.

They said he fired tear-gas or threw acid at them. Other Palestinians said the students asked Mr Arabeh why he was staring at them. Dissatisfied with his answer, one of them fired a single shot into his chest. As he was buried in Hebron yesterday afternoon, mourners shouted: "Let the olive branch fall and the gun rise."

It was not a good day for the olive branch or for any other symbol of peace. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, returned from Washington after telling President Bill Clinton that construction at Har Homa, known to Arabs as Jasbal Abu Ghneim, and other Jewish settlements will continue. "When I walk in Jerusalem I feel as though I am walking in the place where King David strolled," Mr Netanyahu told a meeting of fundamentalist American Christians. "We will build in Jerusalem. It is our right. It is our obligation." He mocked journalists who talked about "Arab east Jerusalem" (in fact, all Israeli settlements on occupied territory, including east Jerusalem, are illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention).

In Hebron, casualty figures were rising all morning. Since January, the city has been partitioned between 120,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers. At the bottom of Shalala street, where Nader Adel el-Saad was shot in the eye, teenagers stoned Israeli troops, who responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades. For once, perhaps because the wind was in the wrong direction, there was no tear-gas. On the Palestinian side of the dividing line, Palestinian police with gas masks, but no other equipment, waved their hands ineffectually to persuade the rioters to pull back. They were met with volleys of stones. In an alleyway off Shalala street the rioters, who were aggressive though not very numerous, stormed the line of Palestinian police, at least one of whom had a bandage on his head after an earlier attempt to stop the stoning. Some of the shopkeepers optimistically tried to stay open as the fighting swirled around them. The owner of the Annasser restaurant, peeping nervously over mounds of yellow rice and bubbling stews to see what was happening in the street, said: "This has been going on for 20 days now. The primary schools are all closed. My younger son is out throwing stones, but not the older one."

It may be that the Jewish settlers are being more aggressive because they sense that the Oslo accords of 1993, which they have always detested, are dissolving. On Monday a settler from Dolev settlement, near Ramallah, was arrested by Israeli police after opening fire and seriously wounding a Palestinian with his rifle. He said his car had been hit by stones.

The settlers are probably right about the fate of the peace accords.

Their basis was peace for land. But Mr Netanyahu made it clear in Washington that he is not prepared to give up much land on the West Bank and none at all in Jerusalem.

He has also offered to scrap the present interim phase of the Oslo accords. Instead, he would discuss a final agreement with the Palestinians. The US and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, are wary of this, seeing it as an attempt by Mr Netanyahu not to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which was the objective of the interim agreement.