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19 June 1997 Edition

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Hebron riots show Oslo II failure

Special report by Michael Browne in Hebron

Following the US Congress decision to shift the American embassy to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv last week, the city of Hebron, 32km south of Jerusalem, has again become a microcosm of all the inherent tensions between Palestinian society and the occupying Israeli army.

The site of many clashes between resident Arabs and armed settlers in the past, it has again become a focal point for Arab frustration with the dying `peace process.' The clashes between youths, wielding only small lumps of brick, and Israelis firing live rounds and rubber bullets started on 14 June, and the casualties amongst the youths are escalating towards one hundred. Monday 16 June saw thirty-nine injured by Israeli fire, and Tuesday saw a twelve year old boy hit in the head by a rubber bullet, and reportedly in a serious condition, one of nineteen casualties.

Young children armed with only a few slingshots and small bricks confronted Israeli soldiers at the bottom of the main street in the city, Beit Haddasah. Two streets comprised the frontline, and were deserted, with the opponents at either end. Occasionally old men and mothers carrying babies were escorted through the frontlines, and the stoning stopped, though not completely, and not for long.

Shops shut along the fifty yards of each street, and in side alleys the youths gathered, occasionally poking round corners to lash bricks at soldiers which fell pathetically short of their targets. The clashes are between unequal forces, with Israeli soldiers in no danger at anytime, safe behind temporary barricades.

The clashes start as soon as the local schools have a break, and usually end in the afternoon. What adds to the unreal nature of the riots is the normality of life only fifty yards away, with shops open for business, taxis touting for customers, and the market place crowded. For Hebron Arabs - or Khalilis as they are known in Arabic - rioting is part of normal life.

Hebron resident Adli Dana, Assistant to the Director of Public Relations at Birzeit - the leading Palestinian university and recognised barometer of Palestinian opinion - cites the realisation that Oslo peace accords are dead as the main reason for the clashes, and continuing repression merely enhances this reality for Palestinians.

Dana, an ex-political activist is sure Oslo is dead, and that widespread Palestinian violence is not far off, as former supporters of Oslo are rapidly losing faith. He sees the riots as a sign and ``a result of the continuing depression and loss of hope, because of Israeli violations of the so-called peace process. News of corruption and ineptitude within the Palestinian National Authority has brought people to the point of despair. The straw that broke their backs was the US Congress decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, a recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the state of Israel. This is why Hebron is in the situation it is now.''

He further explained the significance of Hebron in the struggle between Palestinians and Israel for land, and why it continues to feature as an indicator of Palestinian political movement. ``Hebron is divided into two parts. People feel under immediate threat from the armed Jewish settlers. There are only 150 settlers, some of the most fascist in Israel, and they are guarded by 1500 soldiers in the very centre of the city. They have made peoples' lives hell. This daily harassment, which is paralysing the daily social and commercial life of the citizens has made the people there extremely angry. And their reaction is what we have witnessed during the last four days.

``Hebron is the site of the current clashes. They are expected there all the time, but the general political situation might push other cities to join in the demonstrations. People cannot deny what is happening on the ground, that the Israeli refusal to meet basic civil rights will cause trouble everywhere.''

 


Hebron, under the February `compromise' between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, is under split authority, called Hebron 1, and Hebron 2. The majority of the city's Arab population of one hundred thousand are under PNA control, but the city centre, including the hotly-contested area around the settler `barracks' remains in Israeli hands. This anomoly transforms Hebron into a microcosm of the conflict.

The Hebron Protocol left some 20% of the city's Arabs under the armed supervision of the Israeli army, and extremist settlers remain entrenched in the city centre.

Other major Arab towns, like Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus are under PNA jurisdiction. In these towns it is possible to believe that the Israeli occupation is long over. ``But in Hebron everyone lives the occupation, they can't escape it. It's in their faces every day,'' said Nigel Parry, Public Relations Officer at Birzeit University.

 


The difference in atmosphere between these locations is tangible, and the frustration at the stalled peace talks is obvious. Talk of opposition to both Arafat and the peace process, and support for attacks on Israel is becoming the norm. ``Many now say that it is not a peace process at all, or that it is a process, but not one that will ultimately lead to peace,'' Parry said.

Disillusionment with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and their efforts to sustain the only game in town, Oslo II, is highlighted by the continuing small clashes which erupt and fade across the territories. More particularly it is seen in increasingly open criticism of the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat, as Israeli aggression continues, crushing any hope for peace. Increasingly, calls for a reassessment of Oslo II are gaining more credibility, because it has left Palestinians with little or nothing and, in real terms, worse off than before the process began.
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