World

Back on the path

Israel and the Palestinians finally agree on Hebron

ERIC SILVER January 27 1997
World

Back on the path

Israel and the Palestinians finally agree on Hebron

ERIC SILVER January 27 1997

Back on the path

World

Israel and the Palestinians finally agree on Hebron

ERIC SILVER

At dawn last Friday in Hebron, as the last Israeli soldiers drove away from the grim hilltop military headquarters their army had occupied for nearly 30 years, a young man scaled a towering radio antenna to hang the red, white, black and green Palestinian national flag. It was seven hours after Israeli MPs had ratified a pullout agreement delayed by months of wrangling, and thousands of jubilant Palestinians had gathered outside the former British colonial fort to welcome their own policemen arriving in gleaming white Land Rovers. Some celebrants yelled slogans in memory of Yehiya (The Engineer) Ayyash, the radical Palestinian bomb maker assassinated by the Israeli secret service a year ago. “We are all Yehiya Ayyash!” they chanted. A week earlier, such words might have landed them in an Israeli interrogation chamber.

Foreign leaders hailed the signing of the Jan. 15 Hebron Protocol as a historic moment, the turning point when rightist Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu clearly placed himself and his country back on the peace path laid by slain Nobel Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin. But for the 150,000 Arabs and 450 Jews who live in the biblical city, fear and tension built up over decades of strife remains high. Nearly a year behind schedule, the handover means that about 80 per cent of Hebron—the area where most of the Arab population lives—now comes under Palestinian self-rule. The rest, where the Jews live in three enclaves, remains under Israeli army control. The duties of law enforcement officials on each side have been painstakingly outlined. Yet as the new era opened, it appeared neither the Israeli sentries nor the Palestinian traffic cops had much idea of where one area of jurisdiction stopped and the other began.

Many in the crowd that swarmed around their newly raised flag were former activists in the intifadeh uprising, who had come to revisit cells where they had been held for months at a time in the past decade. Anwar Maswadeh, a 44-year-old doctor, spent 18 months in the concrete fort’s prison wing for membership in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s then-banned AÍ Fatah organization. “The first time I was here as a prisoner, handcuffed and blindfolded,” he said. “This time, I came with my head held high.”

On another bare hill across a valley, Rabbi Dov Lior and a dozen of his students quietly recited psalms above Hebron’s ancient Jewish cemetery and ripped their clothes in the traditional rite of mourning. ‘Turning over the city of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the rule of terrorists,” the settler rabbi told them, “is the same as destroying the city. So, we must go into mourning.” One

student was wearing a white T-shirt left over from last year’s general election. “Vote Netanyahu,” it urged, “for a secure peace.” He shredded it with bitter relish.

Standing near each other on a rocky outcrop, an Arab boy and a Jewish girl watched the mourning ceremony. Asked whether they might one day be friends, the children shook their heads. “We don’t trust them,” they answered in bilingual chorus. Both communities in the disputed holy city, revered by each as the burial place of their common ancestor Abraham, are burdened with a sense of unfinished business. They fear the hand of fanatics, Arab or Jewish, with debts to settle, apocalyptic dreams left unfulfilled.

“I am happy the Israelis have pulled out,” said Maswadeh outside the government fortress. “But I’m not so optimistic that things will be straightforward from now on. The settlers are still in the centre of town. Our experience with them is that they will not allow things to go ahead as planned.” Over on Rabbi Lior’s hillside, settler spokesman Noam Arnon mirrored that insecurity. “Nobody really knows what is going to happen here,” he said. “The lines between Jews and Arabs are only drawn on the map. It will be very easy for a terrorist to cross the line, stab or shoot someone, then go back and find shelter under the Palestinian Authority.”

Increasingly, the setders feel isolated and abandoned. Once a nation of pioneers, Israel has largely become a Western-style consumer society, more interested in maintaining its growing standard of living than settling the ancient homeland. Youths would rather listen to the latest Spice Girls CD than fight a nationalist war. Their elders wear

Calvin Klein jeans and compete for tables at the newest Italian restaurant. An opinion poll published by the daily Yediot Aharonot found 67 per cent of Israelis satisfied with the terms of the Hebron deal and only 25 per cent against it. Asked whether during the previous five years they had visited Hebron— which Netanyahu has called “the rock of our existence”—fully 80 per cent said no, and only 28 per cent planned to do so.

Among the right-wing and religious voters who put Netanyahu in power last May, only a small, dedicated score of settlers, known as the “Women in Green,” demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office. About 100 far-right rabbis signed a newspaper advertisement denouncing the accord as “a disaster which spills the blood of our nation.” And a tiny gang of teenage disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from elective politics as a racist, spray-painted slogans damning Netanyahu as a traitor. Other Israelis stayed home and watched basketball on television. Of the seven ministers who opposed the Hebron agreement in cabinet (against 11 in favor), only one—Benny Begin, son of former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin—resigned.

All the same, Yonatan Shapiro, a Tel Aviv University expert on Likud politics, predicts that as the next elections approach, the party will likely rupture. The Hebron decision, he said, repudiated the Likud dream of a sovereign Jewish homeland stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Shapiro attributes Netanyahu’s radical change of direction to heavy pressure from the Clinton administration, which had in| vested too much in the 1993 Oslo peace 1 process to let it disintegrate. “Netanyahu I alienated many in the party,” he said. “If the g Americans continue to press him, and he has to give in on future stages of the process, the chances are that eventually Likud will split.” Netanyahu’s authority may be weakened, but he still has time to renew it. Beyond Hebron, Israel has agreed to start withdrawing its troops from rural areas of the West Bank in March and complete that three-stage pullout by mid-1998. Netanyahu has also promised to resume talks on the permanent relationship—the socalled final-status negotiations—between Israel and the Palestinians within two months. ‘What Netanyahu has done,” said Mark Heller, a Toronto-born researcher now at Tel Aviv University, “is to take a lot of the poison out of the Israeli debate. The Palestinians can convince themselves a lot more readily that they are partners with the whole of Israel, not just one party. What is now in dispute is specific issues, not principles.”

From the Palestinian side of the barricade, Khalil Shikaki, a Nablus University political science professor, takes a gloomier view. “Netanyahu got his hands dirty in Hebron,” he said, “but he still doesn’t know where he is heading. The fact that he signed an agreement that commits him to the Oslo process means that he realizes ideology is not a policy. But I’m still not sure he’s a pragmatist, a doer rather than a dreamer.”

Last week, Netanyahu was at pains to convince world opinion that he meant what he said when he promised “peace with security.” To the worried citizens of Hebron, that looked far from certain. But the peace process itself, at least, seemed a little more secure.

ERIC SILVER in Hebron