Tense Hebron waits for retaliation

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About 80,000 Palestinians and 4,500 Jewish settlers live in Hebron but yesterday it looked like a city inhabited only by Israelis. After an undercover squad from the border police killed three men, allegedly members of Hamas, as they tried to escape through a grove of spruce trees, Palestinians in Hebron were ordered to stay in their houses.

In the centre of the city, the only Palestinians on the streets were two toddlers, presumably unaware of the curfew. Protected by soldiers on the rooftops and at every street corner, settlers from the Jewish suburb of Kiryat Arba - many carrying sub-machine guns and pistols - were taken by bus for Passover prayers to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the holiest shrine in the country outside Jerusalem for both Muslims and Jews.

Retaliation by Hamas, although not necessarily in Hebron, is expected by Israelis and Palestinians alike. In recent months, Islamic militants have invariably responded with suicide bombs to killings by Israeli undercover units. Fresh attacks were predicted yesterday by the Israeli army commander of the West Bank, Brigadier-General Ilan Biran. "We ask people not to hitchhike and definitely to close their car windows and be on full alert,'' he said.

The place where the three Palestinians died is a wooded hilltop, some distance from the centre of Hebron. The army said the three, identified by the Israeli army as Adel Falah, 23, and Jihad Ghulmeh, 25, both wanted men, and Tarek Natche, 22, were armed and on their way to make an attack. But the dusty track where their white Subaru was riddled with bullets does not lead anywhere and they may have turned into it in a final, desperate effort to shake off those pursuing them.

Local people who broke the curfew to build a small shrine among the trees with green and black flags refused to say if they thought there would be revenge. One man, called Abdullah, said: "We are all very angry."

In Hebron, anger tends to take a physical form. A senior Israeli diplomat has dated the beginning of the collapse of the peace negotiations with the PLO to the failure of the government to remove extreme Jewish settlers from the centre of Hebron after Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs last year.

Extremist settlers were very much in business yesterday. At the foot of the steps going up to the Tomb of the Patriarchs there were tables selling buttons reading: "Hebron now and for ever." There were no Muslims visible in al-Ibrahimi mosque, which since 1967 has shared the building with a synagogue. During Passover, it is given over entirely to Jewish worship on some days. Prayer rugs were pushed behind a screen. Two Israeli soldiers guarded the green door where Goldstein stood when he first opened fire. At the entrance to the synagogue there are now two armouries for temporary storage of weapons belonging to worshippers.

Not all those praying beside the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives were settlers. Many were the ultra-Orthodox in black hats and suits who had taken one of several closely guarded buses from Jerusalem.

They looked relaxed and incurious about why the city they had driven through looked like a ghost town. But, driving back to Jerusalem, the convoy of buses suddenly stopped.

Soldiers pointed nervously ahead at a black object in the middle of the road which they said might be a bomb. It looked more like a bit of discarded plastic. But at a time when everybody is waiting for the next bomb, it was enough to close the main road to Jerusalem for several hours.