At Firing Range, Hebron-Area Settlers Prepare For Worst
KIRYAT ARBA, West Bank (AP) _ The Jewish settlers lining up for target practice in a bomb shelter here are not in it for the sport. Many feel they are preparing for an inevitable confrontation with the Palestinians once Israeli troops pull out of Hebron.
In the underground firing range, settlers took aim at the outlines of human figures drawn on paper.
One 18-year-old joked that he wished Yasser Arafat was the target. Others praised the Jewish settler who massacred 29 Arabs in a Hebron mosque in February 1994.
Kiryat Arba Mayor Zvi Katzover said he hoped the firing range _ usually open two hours a day _ would extend its hours to allow more target practice before the redeployment.
Such attitudes among the heavily armed settlers bode ill for hopes that calm can be maintained after Israel pulls troops out of most of Hebron, the last West Bank town under military occupation. Israel was to have pulled out in March but delayed.
While less militant than some of the youth, the manager of the firing range was nonetheless pessimistic.
``In Russia, I always used to teach never to direct a weapon at people,″ said Zeev Tenenbaum, 41, a recent immigrant who taught Olympic-style marksmanship. ``But here I say, `You must not aim your weapons at people _ except when necessary.‴
With the pullout now seemingly imminent, tensions are mounting, and Israeli security chiefs have warned that extremists among the settlers may resort to violence _ against Palestinians or Palestinian policemen _ to try to foil it.
Israel Radio said settlers in the Hebron area have 840 licensed pistols and hundreds of rifles, and police believe they are hoarding weapons illegally.
For many of the settlers, the pullout is a disaster that weakens Israel’s hold on a city they see as a Jewish birthright.
``Hebron is a Jewish city,″ said Rabbi Yosef Laufer, who organized a visit by hundreds of ultra-Orthodox supporters of the settlers Monday. ``Murderers with machine guns should not come in here,″ he added, referring to the Palestinian police.
Dressed in traditional black hats and coats and escorted by soldiers armed with machine guns, the group marched through downtown Hebron toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs _ a site holy to both Muslims and Jews which is the reputed burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
``I don’t want these people walking here,″ said Jafar Shebeni, 22, a Palestinian student who was standing outside his house watching the procession. ``Hebron is for Muslims, not Jews.″
According to the emerging deal, Israel will maintain control of about a sixth of the town, where the 500-odd settlers and several thousand Arabs live; most of the town’s 94,000 Palestinians will come under the jurisdiction of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
But Arafat has been holding out for a package deal that will include not only Hebron but also a timetable for implementation of other aspects of the peace agreements, including a further troop withdrawal from rural areas of the West Bank.
In a push to advance the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Arafat over the weekend he was willing to discuss the remaining elements of the autonomy accords.
Israel’s Shin Bet security agency has also warned that Palestinian militants are hoarding weapons. Israeli security have been on high alert for weeks following intelligence reports that members of the Islamic Jihad group plan suicide attacks inside Israel.
At the same time, Israel is rounding up suspected settler extremists. Noam Federman, a leader of the outlawed anti-Arab Kach Movement, was taken into custody on Sunday.
On Monday, four right-wing Jewish activists were indicted for publishing a book praising Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish settler who shot and killed 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Feb. 1994.