Revenge fever builds up in Hebron

LABIBA al-Atrash did not know for sure that she was witnessing the death of her son as hundreds of Israeli shells pounded the house down in the valley. But she says she was very afraid.

She awoke to pray at 5am on Wednesday and heard loudspeakers ordering everyone indoors. Out of the window she could see the shells hitting the three-storey building. For 24 hours it continued - the biggest single military bombardment Hebron has seen since Israel seized the town in the 1967 war.

'There was no reason to think that he was inside. But then I began to fear that he was. I knew he was wanted by the Israelis. I hadn't seen him for many weeks,' she said yesterday as bulldozers flattened the rubble below. On Thursday night the radio said Eyad al-Atrash had died in the house, along with two others, all members of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

Yesterday, exactly one month after the Hebron mosque massacre in which Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler living in Hebron, slaughtered at least 29 Muslim worshippers, the town was in mourning again, this time for their newest Hamas 'martyrs'. According to the Israelis, the three had been planning to carry out a revenge attack against the settlers. Friends say this may be true. But their deaths will not prevent the revenge, they say. 'There can be no peace until the settlers go. There are many more Palestinians waiting to die for the sake of Allah,' said Adel Jawad Atrash.

Conservative and deeply religious, Hebron has always been fertile ground for Hamas. Since the massacre of 25 February the movement has only grown in strength and the name of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is now scorned.

Yesterday green Hamas flags fluttered from roofs along with the black flags of mourning and the red flags of the martyrs. From a hillside loudspeakers called the people to a mass gathering in memory of the three Hamas dead, and hundreds flocked there to pray, to console and to congratulate the fathers of the dead. 'Save us from hell, save us from the Jews,' cried the loudspeakers, echoing down across the Old City below, where 400 settlers live under massive armed guard in the heart of the Arab town. 'We are sad but we are happy. They are martyrs and will go to paradise,' said Adnan abu Shark. 'Arafat wants to make peace with the Jews. But it is against the Koran.'

Yesterday the settlers' presence was being reinforced by more and more soldiers posted around their fortified buildings. Most roads leading to the town centre, the old city and the market have now been closed off to Arabs. Only settler convoys may pass through. The settlers can no longer walk at will through the streets. But their harassment of Arabs has not stopped. Settlers walking to the Jewish cemetery set light to three Palestinian cars three days ago. 'They poured gasoline and set it alight. They broke my windows,' said Ibrahim Mohammed Idas, 75, standing in his blackened porch.

Inside the Old City live about 200 Arab families, under military siege. A Red Cross survey of these families, carried out this week, found most in desperate need of food. Meanwhile, the settler convoys pass every day with supplies for the Jewish homes. All of the 150,000 Hebron Arabs have been under curfew since the massacre. For one month no school has opened, no college, no shop and no place of work.

Now that the shock of the massacre is passing, the Arabs' cry for revenge is growing. The Palestinians say the soldiers have been urinating on the Koran. And, as peace negotiators talk, it is Hamas that provides aid to the victims of the massacre.

JERUSALEM - Israel yesterday took an upbeat approach toward efforts to revive negotiations on Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, saying talks could resume by Tuesday, Reuter reports. A senior official said: 'There is no agreement on . . . resumption but as a result of the Cairo meetings it is likely.'

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