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Unholy struggle for holy ground: In the week that saw the peace process falter, militant Jews and Palestinians intensified their campaign to derail the accord

ZVI KATSOVER, mayor of Kiryat Arba, looked solemn as he took the call from General Nahemya Tamari. Reports were circulating that the Jews of this fortress settlement, in the heart of the Palestinian West Bank at Hebron, were to be placed under military curfew, after weeks of bloody violence. 'It's not true,' said the mayor, replacing the receiver.

But the settlers know that a new battle is about to be joined: the Israeli army is to be turned against them. Within their sanitised enclave, they try to claim that their life is 'normal'.

'When mothers enter here, they must know they leave the stones behind,' said Yigal Kutai. 'The children must continue their normal activities. They play sports and go to the library,' he said.

Paranoia, however, is rampant. 'There will be all-out war from Egypt to Iran,' says Eliyakim Haetzni, another settler. 'The clock began to tick from the moment they signed the Oslo treaty (the Israeli-PLO agreement).' 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 have been shot dead to pay for the deaths of two Jewish settlers killed by Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. Now Hamas has 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 to Jews and 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.

This is a pathological little conflict which the Israeli government would rather ignore. The first stage of the peace agreement does not apply to Hebron and the rest of the West Bank. Only after Israeli withdrawal has been implemented in Gaza and Jericho will Palestinian self-rule extend here. But militant Jews and Arabs of Hebron serve each others' mutual interest: to derail the entire peace agreement through violence. Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, is beginning to realise that Hebron cannot be ignored. The town's 150,000 Palestinians have been placed under curfew and dozens arrested. Last week the Israeli government empowered the army to impose curfews on militant Jews and round up suspects. For this, Mr Rabin is scorned as a 'traitor' by Hebron Jews. He is 'not a real Jew' because he is trying to roll back Eretz (Greater) Israel.

Hebron is grotesque testimony to the failure of a 25-year policy of settling Jews in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. There are 130,000 settlers living in Gaza and the West Bank. The hope is that many will leave voluntarily if Palestinian self-rule is established.

The majority are not militant hardliners, but Jews who moved to the occupied territories for economic reasons. Most are ashamed of the militants, but the hard core will stay put.

Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, has suggested that such settlers should 'peacefully co-exist' with their Arab neighbours. Hebron shows this to be a pipe-dream. 'There is not one Jew or one Arab here who believes real peace can come to this area,' says Mr Katzover.

At first sight Hebron is 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. The heavy presence of Israeli soldiers suggests animosity here is deeper than elsewhere in the occupied territories.

The Jewish settlers who came to Hebron chose to live among the Arabs - not in settlements set apart - and exert control from within the Palestinian community. For Jews, religious commitment to Hebron is second only to that owed to Jerusalem. These settlers believed they were in the vanguard of the movement to reclaim Greater Israel.

Moshe Levinger, father of the movement, and 32 Jewish families, first sought to turn Hebron into a Jewish city in 1968. Levinger, who lives in the centre of town with his Doberman Pinschers, took over the Park Hotel in the centre of Hebron in April 1968, defying Israeli government policy, which then barred Jews from moving into West Bank Arab cities.

Demonstrating a stubbornness which his disciples have inherited, he refused to be moved. A divided Labour cabinet succumbed to the pressure.

The settlers won the right to build the settlement of Kiryat Arba, a line of tall apartment blocks that now dominates the city. Much of the enclave was built on land seized from local Palestinians. Other, smaller Jewish enclaves have been set up in and around the Old City, using the Levinger strategy of taking over buildings by stealth, and then staying.

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 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 Mr Rabin came to power, 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, 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' by their committee 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'.

Merzel Baroukh, a Kach leader, sets out his strategy. 'It says in the Bible that if a terrorist will come with a gun - even if he is a terrorist in uniform - he must be killed. If someone comes to kill me, I shall kill him first. If Palestinian police come to Hebron, it will be war.'

(Photograph and map omitted)