Tension high as Hebron deal looms

The black of the slogans, spray-painted in crude Arabic by Jewish settlers on the Cordoba Arab girls' school, is still legible through the Palestinian whitewash. "Arabs out!" reads one. "Death to the Arabs!" another. "Baruch Goldstein - may he blot out your name!" a third.

Goldstein, an American-born settler, was beaten to death by angry worshippers nearly three years ago after massacring 29 Muslims at prayer in what the Arabs revere as the Ibrahim Mosque and the Jews as the tomb of their Patriarchs.

On the brink of an Israeli redeployment in Hebron, the last West Bank city under occupation, he remains a symbol for both communities - a heroic martyr to many of the 450 settlers, the ultimate oppressor to the 150,000 Palestinians.

Under an agreement expected to be sealed this week, Israel will hand over 85 per cent of Hebron to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The Cordoba school, which draws its 205 pupils from all over the city, will remain within the Jewish enclave, under Israeli military rule, as will 15,000 Palestinian residents.

A red, white, black and green Palestinian flag flies defiantly from the window of the headmistress's office on a rocky hillside overlooking Beit Hadassah, the settler stronghold five minutes' walk from the disputed burial site of Abraham, the common ancestor of Arab and Jew. The headmistress, Firyal Abu Haykal, is emphatic: her school will not move.

"This school," she says, "belongs to the Palestinian Authority. It will continue to belong to the Palestinian Authority. The settlers curse our children, they beat them, they throw stones at them. But we have no choice but to stay."

But will the parents continue sending their daughters? "The authority has barred our pupils from transferring to other schools on the Palestinian side of town," Mrs Abu Haykal said. "They won't be accepted. I brought three of my own children here, aged 7, 13 and 14. All the parents I've talked to say they will make the same sacrifice."

Like many of the Palestinians who are standing their ground among the settlers, Mrs Abu Haykal does not see, perhaps does not want to see, redeployment as the last word.

"I believe the final goal of the Oslo agreement is to end the occupation. Eventually, it will come to an end. We've waited 30 years. Why not wait another five?" Below the Cordoba school, Arab labourers are building an extra storey on a settler yeshiva seminary. In a nearby coffee shop, Yusuf Sharabati, a 70-year-old in a black and white chequered kefiyeh, says he is angry with them, but can't bring himself to interfere. "They have to live," he admitted, "and we have no work for them".

In the fruit and vegetable market between the yeshiva and the mosque, Arab traders are worried that they will soon have no customers. "Business is very bad already," said Muhammad Rajabi. "People are afraid to come to this area because of the police and the settlers. It will be worse after the redeployment. We shall have to move."

Up to 2,000 sympathisers came to reinforce the Hebron settlers over the Sabbath, but most of them had left yesterday. The city was frozen in uncertainty. Arab youths lobbed a couple of ineffective petrol bombs at Israeli checkpoints.

The Jews, like the Arabs, are still unconvinced that anything is going to change. "There isn't going to be a withdrawal," said Moshe Ben-Zimra, a settler leader.

Last night, the Israeli Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, met Mr Arafat in an attempt to resolve the problems before the New Year.

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