Settlers free to circulate as Palestinians confined to their homes


Hebron and the neighbouring town of Halhoul, in the south of the West Bank, await Israeli reoccupation. The Mayor of Halhoul, Mr Muhammad Milhem, observes: "We are living in a period where we cannot tell what happens the next minute. For the past seven to 10 days people have been making preparations for any emergency."+

While I sat in his office in the grand new Halhoul Municipality building, Mr Milhem telephones round to fellow mayors in the district. The mayor of Yatta "is assessing damage to homes. Three Palestine Authority offices have been destroyed," Mr Milhem says. "The mayor of Doura is negotiating with the Israeli army over the evacuation of dead and wounded. A blind university professor and political activist from the Atrash family has been assassinated in Doura," Mr Milhem states after putting down the phone.

"There have been no incidents here. These villages are far from the settlements. The Israelis want to destroy the Authority and send us a political message: 'We are here. We can come in at any time'. They want an alternative leadership. But there is no alternative to Arafat."

Mr Milhem makes an appointment for me with his counterpart in Hebron, Mr Mustafa Natche, and drives me to his office. As we pull up to the battered municipality on the main street of the new city, Mr Natche is leaving.

"I will be back in 10 minutes. I must pay a condolence visit at the Atrash home." The victim, a wanted man, had fled from Hebron to Doura before Israel imposed a curfew there. He was killed in the home of a friend.

Mr Natche describes the trials and tribulations of living in a divided city, with 38 Israeli settler families and Jewish religious students guarded by 1,500 heavily armed Israeli troops at the core of the old town where stands the Ibrahimi mosque, revered by both Muslims and Jews as the burial place of the Prophet Abraham.

"So far the Israelis have shot out 35 electricity transformers. Both Arabs and settlers ring us up and complain," he says, as mint tea is served. "The same is true when water does not flow and garbage is not collected." Asked who foots the bill when transformers are damaged, garbage trucks wrecked, Mr Natche smiles: "We pay, they destroy."

He sends me in a municipality pickup with a young information officer, Mr Abdel Aziz Nawfal, to attempt to reach the old town, which has been under curfew for six weeks. Mr Nawfal cannot go in, nor can I. Even on foot.

"Every 5-7 days they lift the curfew for a couple of hours to let the people stock up on food," says Mr Nawfal as the vehicle negotiates one steep slope after another to the place with the best view of this hill city.

Below us lies the whole of historic Hebron, an ancient, once walled city. He points out the three buildings inhabited by the 275-300 settlers. The 40,000 Palestinians who live there are confined to their homes and can only move round on foot when the curfew is eased, the settlers are free to circulate in any way they please.