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Palestinians Wield New Weapons in Hebron: Paint and Plaster

November 26, 1996

HEBRON, West Bank (AP) _ The clink of hammers and rumble of cement mixers signals the opening of a new front in the Palestinians’ battle for Hebron.

Encouraged by Yasser Arafat’s government, they are renovating dozens of crumbling and abandoned stone buildings in the heart of Hebron, especially those surrounding the tiny Jewish settler community.

``We want to prove that the old city is Palestinian and not Jewish,″ said Khaled Qawasmeh, chief engineer of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee.

The committee was formed three months ago, just as it seemed Israel’s long-delayed troop withdrawal from most of the city was about to happen. The pullout is still on hold, but the renovation effort is well under way.

Many of the buildings were abandoned during the Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993. Today, with an Israeli government sympathetic to settlement expansion, Palestinians say leaving the buildings empty is inviting trouble.

``If these homes stay empty, then it will be easy for the settlers to come here and move in,″ said Wisam Muhtaseb, a Palestinian resident of the old city. ``The Palestinians have to return back to live in their houses.″

Hebron’s old city spreads out from the 2,000-year-old Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews. These days, construction dust clogs the air and workers crowd the narrow streets, lugging stacks of tiles and pushing wheelbarrows heaped with crushed stone. Scaffolding covers many buildings.

The committee, with money donated primarily by Saudi Arabia, is renovating more than 30 homes and stores in the city’s center. Priority goes to buildings near the compounds where Hebron’s 500 Jewish settlers and yeshiva students live.

The committee’s leader, Palestinian Authority Transportation Minister Ali Qawasmeh, says he hopes as many as 4,000 to 5,000 Hebronites will come back to live in the city center _ even though it will remain under Israeli control for the time being because of the settlers’ presence.

The construction has infuriated settlers, who are still waiting for authorization from the government to expand their own enclaves. Piles of cement blocks and 2-by-4s sit ready in the Avraham Avinu settler compound so that construction can begin as soon as the permission is granted.

``This is an initiation of the PLO to bring in thousands of people to surround the Jewish quarters,″ settler leader Noam Arnon said, suggesting that increasing the number of Palestinians near the settlements could endanger the Jewish residents.

As part of their campaign in the old city, Palestinian officials run daily tours for Palestinian schoolchildren _ reminiscent of the buses of Israeli children brought in to see Hebron’s Jewish sights.

Among the stops on the tour: a long-abandoned Turkish bath, its cavernous domed building filled with workers. The building, owned by Islamic religious authorities, is being turned into a museum.

Nearby, the four-story house of Izzedine Sharabati is being stripped and renovated.

From his roof, Sharabati can see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the hills surrounding Hebron. He also can look down on the laundry lines and children’s bikes on the back porches of Jewish settlers next door and across to Israeli soldiers standing guard on the opposite rooftop.

``My neighbors _ the settlers _ are French, American, Russian, while my roots go back 8,500 years in this city,″ he said. ``What right do the settlers have to come and take houses here?″

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