OUTSIDE Hebron's old city market yesterday the shopkeepers were waiting to greet their new 'guests' - an advance party of international observers, Norwegians, Danes and Italians, come to prepare for keeping the peace.
Raja Shweibi wanted them to see his clothes shop, closed now for 45 days as the result of a military order imposed after the Hebron massacre. And he wanted them to see the new cement wall outside his store, built by the army to block off the road. He suggested they should observe the Israeli soldiers lining the streets and preventing hundreds of Arab shopkeepers from reaching their stores.
Then there was Hebron's new Jewish enclave to observe, created by a military cordon thrown around five tiny Jewish settlements, housing about 400 Jews, in the heart of the old city. The shopkeepers yesterday explained how the streets running between the settlements, lined with Arab stores and homes, have been closed off and only Jewish settlers are allowed here. The observers could have seen the settlers yesterday strolling with guns and driving in military convoys in streets cleared of Arabs. And they could have seen the new 'two-lane' thoroughfare along one side of the Old City, with one lane for Arabs and another for Jews, with a high cement wall in-between.
But the 'guests' had not come to talk to the shopkeepers or observe their problems. The observers had been told by the Israelis that all was well in Hebron town-centre, and that life was returning to 'normal'.
'The centre of Hebron has been opened up today for the first time at our request,' said Knut Vollebaek, the Norwegian spokesman, on arrival at Hebron's outlying City Hall, clearly unaware that he had been hoodwinked. Most of the press, too, were absent from Hebron town-centre yesterday, banned by military order. 'We are happy,' Mr Vollebaek added, 'that the Israelis have agreed that normality should return. This is a good omen.'
The deployment of the foreign monitors in Hebron, agreed in the wake of the massacre, is being treated with scepticism by the Palestinians. They are to number just 160, half of whom will be administrative staff. No date has been set for deployment, and no terms of reference agreed. Not even the colour of their uniform has been decided, nor the location of their 'barracks'.
On the advice of the Danes, who have long experience in Bosnia, the group have decided not to bear arms, despite provision for each to carry a pistol for self-defence. 'We think we will be safer without a gun, and more respected perhaps,' said Hanning Jonsen, a Norwegian observer.
Among the Palestinians there are strong fears that the presence of the monitors will be used by the Israelis as a pretext to reinforce the status quo in Hebron, where the presence of settlers - 400 in the town-centre and about 5,000 in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba - is the cause of the strife.
The Jewish settlers have no intention of respecting the observers. 'I would not stop for anybody but a Jewish authority,' said Gideon Maraglit, an armed settler from the town-centre. 'We do not expect them to get in our way.'
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