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Settlers tighten their grip on Land of Israel

Religious Jews are waiting for Netanyahu to keep his word, writes Patrick Cockburn
Hebron - Jewish settlers will rally today to celebrate a miracle before the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the centre of Hebron. "The fact that [Binyamin] Netanyahu was elected can be described as a real miracle," says David Wilder, spokesman for the 500 settlers in the city. "We prayed very hard for it. Only a few months ago [Shimon] Peres was 20 per cent ahead in the polls."

He is not alone in seeing God behind the political turnaround for the Likud leader. After Yigal Amir, a friend and supporter of the Hebron settlers, killed the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, last November, many Israelis regarded the Jews in the city as pariahs. Gabriel Ben Yitzhak, inscribing a Torah scroll in his mobile home overlooking Hebron, says he greeted the election result "with great joy. Now there will be no withdrawal".

Under the Oslo accords Israeli troops are to withdraw from 85 per cent of Hebron, giving autonomy to most of the 100,000 Palestinians who live there. The pull-out was postponed twice: once after the suicide bombs in Israel and again in the days just before the election. The Palestinian Authority agreed to the delay in order to boost the re-election hopes of Mr Peres, the Labour Prime Minister.

Overjoyed though they are by the election result Mr Wilder, born in New Jersey, and Mr Ben Yitzhak from North Finchley, London, sound a little wary of Mr Netanyahu, the prime minister-elect. "He's not quite the person we are looking for, but we only had two choices," says Mr Ben Yitzhak. He did not vote for Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, but for the National Religious Party, whose ideology combines Judaism and territorial nationalism.

In his campaign Mr Netanyahu said: "Jews have a right to settle anywhere and everywhere in the Land of Israel." This means that the freeze by the Labour government on the 135,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza building new settlements will now end. Given the strength of the religious right in Israel it is a position from which Mr Netanyahu will find it difficult to pull back. If he is too provocative, however, he could damage the diplomatic gains made by Israel in the Arab world since the Oslo accords.

Settlers can scarcely believe their luck. In January Danny Hizmy, a deeply religious settler of Yemeni origin, said: "The government has given six or seven cities to the Arabs in three weeks, which is terrible." Dolefully, he admitted that the settlers' ability to protest effectively was weak after the assassination of Mr Rabin. Only big bomb attacks by Palestinians on Israelis could torpedo Oslo, but he suspected they would do nothing so self-destructive. A month later the first of four suicide bombs blew up inside a bus in Jerusalem, killing 25 people.

As the withdrawal from Hebron becomes the test case for Mr Netanyahu's willingness to abide by the terms of the Oslo accords, posses of journalists and television crews, Israeli and foreign, have descended on the city and seem, at times, to outnumber settlers. Mr Ben Yitzhak says that a priority for the new government should be to reform and, by implication, to purge the Israeli state-owned media. He said: "They vilify us. They are anti-religious and left-wing."

Mr Wilder is more discreet, if not more moderate. He believes that the accords give to the Palestinians the Land of Israel which God gave to the Jews. "Hebron is a Jewish city," he says. "We believe all of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] should be annexed." Three months ago this vision of an Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan seemed to be evaporating, but with the election of Mr Netanyahu it has been, unexpectedly and miraculously, reborn.