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IDF concerned by sharp rise in Hebron violence

Settlers deliberately provoke brawls, officers say

By Amos Harel, 08/10/2000 Ha'aretz Correspondent

Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz called Hebron "the most difficult place" in discussions with Israel Defense Forces paratroopers serving in the city. "The frictions here can ignite the whole of Judea and Samaria," he said on Tuesday.

Mofaz knows what he is talking about. In February 1994, when he was commander of the West Bank, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslims at prayer. The massacre not only led to massive riots throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also spurred the military wing of Hamas to commence a wave of suicide attacks on buses within the Green Line. But apparently Mofaz was not relying only on his memories.

In recent weeks, Hebron, the only city divided between areas of Israeli and Palestinian control, has been the scene of a wave of violent incidents between settlers and Arabs. The IDF speaks of an atmosphere of growing extremism which, to a large extent, has been created by settlers in the Jewish enclave. Many brawls break out because of provocations started deliberately by the settlers. Street fights (so far, without shooting) have recently become almost a daily occurrence.

A random selection of events from the last month shows the dimensions of the phenomenon: a Jewish girl (the daughter of a settler leader) was attacked by a Palestinian who tried to kiss her. In response, dozens of settlers went on the rampage, kicking Palestinians and damaging property. Two policemen were attacked and beaten by settlers. Five IDF soldiers were wounded by marbles that Jewish children aimed at Arabs. Jewish children shattered windows of Palestinian cars and the father of one slapped a soldier who tried to stop his son. And last Saturday, a Jewish girl complained that she was attacked by Arabs. In response, settlers beat up several Palestinians.

At the same time, an increase has been noted in the number of Molotov cocktails thrown by Palestinians. A considerable number have been linked to the brawls with settlers. They were thrown in the same places where Palestinians were beaten up, sometimes only moments after the incident.

The Palestinian reaction is much more bitter now than it was in the past. "They're no longer prepared to bend their heads in front of the settlers. It looks as though they're trying to broadcast a message: You're living here on borrowed time. They no longer keep silent when stalls are overturned in the market," a senior officer says.

Apparently it is not a coincidence that yesterday the Palestinian media reported that Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed at Camp David to evacuate the Jews from Hebron. Although the prime minister quickly denied this, and explained that there was no final agreement, the maps of the expected permanent arrangement that were leaked to the press were clear: Ehud Barak intends to do what Yitzhak Rabin before him considered doing but did not dare to carry out - to dismantle the Jewish enclave in Hebron.

In light of this, it is not difficult to understand the settlers' suspicions and the hope (at least of some of them) that continuous violence will set off a confrontation that is large enough to stop the peace process.

Meanwhile, so far the tension in the city has not led to attacks with live ammunition. (There have been two such attacks near Hebron since the beginning of the year against Israelis. Five were wounded; no arrests have been made.) But the violence is now conducted on a one-on-one basis: curses, blows, sometimes mass brawls. Many of those involved, on both sides, are youngsters.

Recently, the settler youth have refined their operative methods. They show up in a kind of "Provocation Patrol": they use a group of girls who go out of the Jewish settlement to the adjacent Palestinian neighborhood and immediately complain that they have been sexually harassed by Arabs. Then the "reserve force" of Jewish youngsters bursts forth and reaches the site.

IDF officers say that these youngsters do not go out to demonstrate, but deliberately to strike blows. The officers admit that the army and the police have a hard time enforcing the law as prolonged detention is possible only when there is a suspicion of crime (terror). Whoever beats up Arabs or Jews in the morning is detained and released in the evening, at the latest. The settlers, like the Palestinians during the Intifada, send the youth up front to riot. It is clear to the security forces that these are well planned operations.

The commander of the Hebron brigade, Colonel Noam Tivon, met with the settler leaders to discuss the issue, so far without results. When tension rises, the violence is sometimes directed at the IDF. The settlers did indeed apologize to a Nahal soldier who was beaten up (in contrast with the well-reported attack organized against Lieutenant Colonel Baruch Yedid, an officer of the Civil Administration who was attacked near Elon Moreh at the beginning of the week). The settlers are much less restrained toward the police and Border Police and even the Military Police.

The evacuation of the Maon Farm outpost south of Hebron and the dismantling of the compound around the grave of the mosque murderer Baruch Goldstein passed without violence. But in recent confrontations with the IDF, the settlers are already not so careful about keeping their hands to themselves - and it is no longer a phenomenon of "a lone lunatic."

The IDF has so far made do with lukewarm responses to these incidents. Just as the chief of staff or the IDF spokesman have not denounced the beating up of Lieutenant Colonel Yedid and the frequent attacks on Druze Border Policemen at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, in Hebron, also, the army has refrained from broadcasting an unequivocal message.

In light of the reports, the chief of staff ordered that consideration be given to beefing up the forces within Hebron, including the positioning of a permanent company in the middle of Shuhada Street. But the most worrying information was tacked onto the margins of Mofaz's visit. More and more Jews in Hebron, it is said, are now talking openly of attacks against Palestinians, in an attempt to derail the peace process. The Shin Bet security service is already in the picture.

In July 1998, the commander of the Hebron brigade at that time, Colonel Yigal Sharon, summed up the events in the first half of the year in the city. The number of attacks was relatively few, but in light of the heating-up of the atmosphere between Jews and Arabs, Sharon called the situation a "violent confrontation that is growing wider." This city is boiling, Sharon said then, and is only awaiting the match to set it alight. Several weeks later, Hebron underwent a wave of attacks, the largest since the massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs, that peaked when a settler, Rabbi Shlomo Ra'anan, was murdered and dozens of soldiers were wounded by grenades. This week Colonel Sharon revisited Hebron. He felt the enormous tension. Never before, he said, has he seen Hebron more ready to go up in flames.

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