HEBRON - Measured by the mile, it is no distance from Gaza City to Hebron; just an hour or so across rugged hills, writes Sarah Helm. But measured by the mood yesterday, these two Palestinian towns were a world apart.
In Gaza the people were clutching at their new-found freedom. Palestinian police were directing the traffic. Teenagers were scouring deserted Israeli bases for souvenirs, and the last Israeli soldiers were packing their bags.
In Hebron, the streets were seething with anger. Israeli forces were sending reinforcements to guard the local Jewish settlements. The eager, young, white-clad international observers were 'reporting on unusual incidents'.
An experiment in self-rule is underway on two tiny patches of land. But while attention focuses on the flag-waving in the enclaves of Gaza and Jericho, 90 per cent of the occupied territories remains firmly under Israeli control.
Yesterday, near Hebron, two settlers were shot dead by Palestinians. Apparently the attack was in revenge for the wounding on Monday of 19 Palestinians by Hebron settlers and Israeli soldiers. The observers from Norway, Denmark and Italy, deployed in the town in the wake of the Hebron massacre, could do nothing to prevent the violence. They were ordered out of the area by the Israeli army.
In Gaza's Palestine Square, the news from Hebron did not stir people. Here, the Israelis were preparing for their final pull-out. A new authority was preparing to fill the vacuum and Palestinians were struggling to grasp the new reality unfolding before their eyes.
The new authority, in the person of General Nasser Youssef, chief of Palestinian police, inspected Gaza's newly evacuated prison. Flanked by pistol-carrying bodyguards, he posed for pictures amid the rubbish in the prison yard, and pledged to convert the building into a barracks. The gunmen in Gaza would be forced to apply for licences or hand in their arms, he said. Asked if he would stop the militants' attacks on Israel, the general said: 'We are now in an era of peace.' Outside, crowds gazed at Palestinian flags hanging from its crumbling roof.
Teenagers exchanged stories of imprisonment. 'It was like butchery. They used telephone wires for torture. They beat us,' said Hassan Abdel Amoudi, a Palestinian policeman. Nearby, 'old fighters' queued for jobs with the new Palestinian police.
'The intifada was for the younger men. But now we want a role. We are not too old,' said Tawfik Hussein Saleem, who won his battle honours fighting with the Palestine Liberation Army in the Sinai in 1964.
Across the hills in Hebron, Majid Hamjoun, 17, displayed his gun-shot wounds in hospital and questioned whether the Israeli army would ever withdraw from the town. 'They are killing us and yet they say they are withdrawing from Gaza and Jericho. They will never withdraw from here.'
The latest Hebron clashes followed a familiar pattern. On Monday, about 20 Jewish settlers from a settlement in the centre of the town marched towards the Tomb of the Patriarchs, apparently in a fresh attempt to enter the building where Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in February. Palestinians say settlers, backed by Israeli soldiers, opened fire. The settlers and the Israeli army say shots were fired only after Palestinians attacked with stones. The international observers were unable to get close enough to see what happened.
Last night, in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians moved freely after nightfall for the first time since the intifada started in 1987. With no Israelis present, there was no curfew. In Hebron, a curfew was again imposed on Palestinians, and a Jewish settler, Noam Arnon, described the peace process as a 'process for spilling of Jewish blood'. A new era may have dawned in Gaza and Jericho this week, but the peace-makers ignore Hebron at their peril.
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