The Hebron Massacre: Holy town where talk is only of vengeance: Yesterday's tragedy was all too predictable. Sarah Helm visited both sides in Hebron a few weeks ago. This is what she found

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The Independent Online
PARANOIA is rampant. 'There will be all-out war from Egypt to Iran,' says Eliyakim Haetzni, a Kiryat Arba settler. 'The clock began to tick from the moment they signed the Oslo treaty (the Israeli-PLO agreement which was reached last September).'

In Hebron, outside the barricades, armed Jewish settlers and Palestinian extremists roam the streets, talking only of revenge. In the latest tit-for- tat violence, three Palestinians had been shot dead to pay for the deaths of two Jewish settlers killed by Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. Hamas had vowed retaliation. 'It is just a matter of time. It may come tomorrow - or today,' said one Palestinian militant.

In the streets near the town's religious sites, around the Tomb of the Patriarchs, holy both to Jews and to Muslims, and on the hills where King David established his first throne, there is only one law: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

In Kiryat Arba, the mayor, Zvi Katzover, says: 'There is not one Jew or one Arab here who believes real peace can come to this area.'

At first sight Hebron seems just another shabby West Bank town, where 150,000 Palestinians endure the daily humiliations of Israeli occupation and the presence of 5,000 Jewish settlers. But the heavy presence of Israeli soldiers suggests animosity here is deeper than elsewhere in the occupied territories.

Hebron is seen as the front line for Jewish settlers. 'We are the strongest. We have stayed here during six years of intifada. Anyone weak has left by now,' says Mr Katzover.

It was in Hebron that a group of Jewish extremists formed the organisation, Jewish Underground, in the early 1980s, after the peace agreement with Egypt. Hebron is now the headquarters of the militant right-wing group, Kach. It says that Kiryat Arba has grown since Yitzhak Rabin came to power as Prime Minister, attracting more militants. 'There is a saying that Jews are like olives - you have to crush them to get the oil out. Jews are best in adversity,' says Mr Haetzni.

As a counterpoint to Jewish militancy, Hebron has nurtured Palestinian extremism. Hamas has its West Bank stronghold here. In Hebron, Arafat is a name derided by Palestinians with almost as much fervour as Rabin is derided by Jews.

The Jews of Hebron still spread fear in the town, far out of proportion to their numbers. 'The settlers try to create a situation in which our life becomes unbearable, so we will contemplate leaving. They use insidious tactics to achieve their diabolical goals,' says Khali Suleiman, a Palestinian journalist and supporter of the Islamic movement. 'They use vigilante terrorism. They go on the rampage to terrorise people. They aim to create despair. They want to show us all the time they have the upper hand.'

Evidence of Jewish 'control' is everywhere in the streets. It is the Jewish teenagers who rule the narrow passages around Hebron's Old City. Twelve-year-olds never flinch as they swagger past the crowded market, staring defiantly at Palestinian traders who cower under their sheds - which are often riddled with bullet holes, evidence of vigilante raids.

The young settlers are confident in the knowledge that they are watched by soldiers from every roof. On their way to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, they stand in their jeans and skullcaps, hurling rocks at Palestinian children to drive them from the streets.

They stand with their hands on their hips as the 'enemy' scatters to the rooftops. Then they walk on, ushered approvingly by fathers festooned with guns.

In a small settlement in the Old City, the militants of Kach plan a 'patrol' for safety on the roads. The patrol of armed settlers swings through the streets, monitoring army radio with hi-tech equipment, ready to 'prevent trouble'.