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Settlers dish out lesson in intolerance for Palestinians

Patrick Cockburn visits a school in Hebron struggling against harassment
"They have big black dogs which chase us when we come to school," said Hanin Bayed, a nine-year-old pupil at the Kurtuba Elementary Girls' School built into the side of a hill which overlooks the headquarters of some of the most violent Israeli settlers in Hebron. In al-Saleh street below the school the settlers amble confidently past closed and wrecked Palestinian shops, sub-machine-guns dangling from their hands.

The girls at the Kurtuba school in their neat blue and white striped dresses were briefly buoyant yesterday as they showed their bruises to the Palestinian deputy minister of education and assorted visiting journalists. They described excitedly their brushes with the settlers which culminated with the beating of their headmistress, Firyal Abu Haikal, by a soldier as she tried to rescue a flag which had flown over the school.

But the long-term outlook is bleak for Kurtuba, as it is for Hebron and future relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The school looks down on the centre of the city which has been largely taken over by 400 settlers and the soldiers and police sent to protect them.

The biggest mistake of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, according to a senior Israeli diplomat, was not to get rid of the settlers from central Hebron immediately after Baruch Goldstein, from the nearby Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the al-Ibrahimi mosque in February last year.

The crisis over Hebron is one which Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, will find difficult to get round. At the weekend the chief Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qreia, said talks had narrowed differences over other issues but over Hebron "there is a major difference between the two positions". Because of the settlers, Israel is refusing to grant the city autonomy along with five other West Bank cities.

The Palestinian leader seems to sense that he cannot afford to compromise.

A teacher at Kurtuba school pledged: "We shall never surrender. We shall stay struggling in the middle of Hebron." But not everybody was so confident. A haggard-looking man who has two daughters at the school said:" I am really frightened of the dogs." Firyal Abu Haikal says that in three years the number of girls at the school has dropped from 400 to 177 as parents move away.

At Halhoul, a Palestinian town just north of Hebron, there were other signs yesterday that the violence of the settlers is increasing. Under a yellow awning surrounded by some 60 mourners and relatives, Hussein Azamareh, a grizzled man with walking stick who moves with difficulty, was mourning his son Salman, who was killed by two bursts of automatic fire on Friday. Mr Azamareh describes how he had just listened to the midnight news in Arabic on Israeli radio when he saw men in Israeli army uniform outside who shouted at him in Hebrew to let them in and then secured his hands behind his back with plastic handcuffs.

"At this moment my son came back - he was often out late - and they instantly fired at him," says Mr Azamareh. "They ran into the trees and I went out and found him. I could not recognise his face because it was covered with blood, but I knew his clothes."

Afterwards, two shadowy settler groups, Eyal and The Sword of David, each claimed they had carried out the murder. The army denied any of their men were involved. Salman had supported the rest of family by selling vegetables and had never had trouble with the police. His father said his killers fired instantly without asking him his name and may have been startled by his late return. Their instant flight may be a sign that the Hebron settlers may have intended to harass - as at Kurtuba - and the killing was accidental.