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Hebron’s Future Holds Up Accord On West Bank Self-Rule

August 15, 1995

Editor’s Note _ Historically one of fiercest junctions of Islam and Judaism, Hebron is now one of the biggest obstacles to expanding Palestinian autonomy throughout the West Bank. Here, Jewish settlers live among Palestinians. But as vegetable vendor Imad al-Khatib and American-born settler Shani Horowitz illustrate, the reluctant neighbors are unwilling to compromise their incompatible visions for the city.

By DAN PERRY

Associated Press Writer

HEBRON, West Bank (AP) _ The gulf between Shani Horowitz and Imad Al-Khatib, unwilling neighbors in this explosive West Bank town, is nearly impossible to bridge.

Imad al-Khatib, an Arab whose vegetable store went bankrupt after Israeli soldiers blocked off his street to protect nearby Jewish enclaves, says all settlers must leave Hebron for peace to stand a chance.

But Shani Horowitz, one of 450 Jewish settlers living among 100,000 Arabs in the town, has an entirely different vision: ``I’m on a mission to make Hebron a Jewish town,″ she said. ``I’m never leaving.″

The settler presence _ the only Jews living in an Arab town in the West Bank _ has made Hebron the most difficult knot to untie in the Israel-PLO peace process and is the main reason an agreement on expanding Palestinian autonomy has not yet been reached.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said this week that Israel must retain an army presence in Hebron even after withdrawing from the other West Bank towns because it is a stronghold of the Hamas militant group. The group has killed more than 100 Israelis since 1993.

Israel also wants to keep troops in parts of the Hebron to protect the settlers.

An Israeli official, who demanded anonymity, said that despite the announcement last week of a framework accord, negotiators had not yet even tackled the Hebron issue because it was so sensitive and difficult.

The issue is further complicated, he said, by the Tomb of the Patriarchs _ the reputed burial site of biblical patriarch Abraham and the second holiest site for Jews after Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The site also is revered by Muslims, however their access to parts of the tomb where Jews pray has been restricted since settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers there in February 1994.

A spokesman for PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Tunisia indicated on Tuesday that the Palestinians were ready to make a compromise that would deal with the Jewish settlers. But the spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, said Israel must agree to pull troops out of Hebron as part of the accord.

Palestinians say the settlers, who are heavily armed and travel under army escort, are aggressive and the security measures to protect them make the lives of Hebron’s residents impossible.

On Monday, for example, Palestinian drivers were forced into long detours around downtown because of a settler march honoring scores of Jews who were killed in Hebron by Arab rioters in 1929. That massacre put an end to a centuries-old Jewish presence in Hebron until ultranationalist, religious settlers began returning after Israel took the West Bank from Jordan in 1967.

Settlers periodically rampage through the town, attacking cars and shops, says al-Khatib, the former vegetable store owner.

``We can do nothing because the army is with them,″ he sighed, standing beside a shuttered shop painted with a six-pointed Star of David and graffiti in Hebrew proclaiming: ``The people of Israel live.″

About 50 yards away, in the Jewish enclave known as Beit Hadassah, Horowitz insisted the Palestinians’ fears ``are not genuine.″

``They play a game as if they’re on the defensive. But we walk around armed because we’re afraid of a knife in the back. I can’t stick my head outside without rocks being thrown,″ said Horowitz, who left her native New York City 18 years ago.

Horowitz, a mother of seven, said she was glad her presence made an Israeli withdrawal from Hebron difficult. Like many of the other Hebron settlers, her motivation was primarily religious.

``I believe this is a God-given country,″ she said.

The Jewish fervor is matched by that of Islamic fundamentalists in the town, who also show no signs of compromise. ``We want to live Islamically,″ said Khaled Amayreh, a leading Hamas figure. ``The settlers must go.″

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