Mideast: Between Hebron and Hell

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A Palestinian gunmen fires an automatic weapon

Abraham (a.k.a. Ibrahim) is considered a forefather to both Jews and Muslims, but his children continue to fight over his grave. The ancient West Bank city of Hebron, where according to tradition the Biblical prophet is buried, has long been an epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian violence. In 1929, the massacre of 67 Jews destroyed its tiny historic Jewish community. But four decades, later Jewish settlers began moving into Hebron after its capture by Israel. In 1994, a lone Jewish settler killed 29 Muslim worshippers at a local mosque. The Palestinian Authority took control of 80 percent of the city in 1997, although a small settler presence remained in the center of town. Thus today's Hebron, where some 400 settlers guarded by hundreds more soldiers live surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians — and guns blaze almost daily.

Fighting in Abu Sneineh

Israeli armored personnel carriers charged up the Hebron hill known as Abu Sneineh on Thursday, entering Palestinian-controlled territory and destroying two houses from which snipers had allegedly fired on Jewish settlers down below, seriously wounding an 11-year-old boy and lightly wounding his older brother. The incident, however, is a reminder why Hebron is a microcosm of today's West Bank — one that holds little comfort for anyone hoping for an early restoration of the collapsed peace process.

The settlers cheered, of course, as their army reentered Abu Sneineh. They'd been calling for its reoccupation since a ten-month-old baby girl was killed by Palestinian sniper fire earlier this year. But they were angry when the Israeli forces retreated after two hours, during which time they'd been under continuous light-arms fire from Palestinian security forces and gunmen from various militant political factions. The gunmen crowed that they'd forced the Israelis out; the Israeli army pooh-poohed that claim and said the operation was simply a warning that they could enter the area any time they chose.

Lessons of the last intifada

Abu Sneineh highlights one of the problems faced by the Israeli army in contemplating military solutions to the current uprising: The Israeli army learned, during the last intifada, that its troops are constantly vulnerable when deployed inside Palestinian urban areas. It was no coincidence that although Israel withdrew its troops from less than 40 percent of the West Bank and Gaza during the Oslo years, it was happy to include most Palestinian urban areas in the territory it handed over — better to have your troops and tanks surround the town than to be facing a potential ambush around every corner. And in Intifada II, the Palestinians have automatic rifles. So the Israeli troops may be able to protect themselves for a few hours, as they did on Thursday with helicopter gunships circling overhead, but any long-term deployment greatly raises the risks they face — and raises as well as the potential for human rights abuses that would cost Israel on the diplomatic front.

The diplomatic front, of course, is not showing convincing signs of restoring the peace any time soon. It's not yet clear when Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres will meet under German auspices, let alone whether the Palestinian leader and the Israeli foreign minister have anything new to discuss. Today's talk is of a "rolling cease fire" to be implemented on an area-by-area basis — Arafat would rein in the militants in one town, and the Israelis would ease restrictions on that town, creating momentum towards calming the flames.

Can Arafat still control his organization?

"Reining in the militants" in Hebron is something of a tall order for Arafat. The leading force in the intifada on the ground today, in Hebron and everywhere else, is not Islamic Jihad or Hamas, but his own Fatah organization. That may make it sound simple enough: Just order the boys to stop firing at Israelis, and go out and arrest a few Islamists, and we'll have a cease-fire. But it's no longer that simple. The Palestinian street shows little enthusiasm for a cease-fire; opinion polls find that two out of three Palestinians support suicide bombings against Israel. Moreover, it has been Arafat's own security forces that have born the brunt of Israel's military response to the intifada, and they're in no mood to go out and arrest anyone at Israel's behest. Indeed, the Islamists chuckle to the Arab media that Sharon's strategy of bombing PA security facilities has actually drawn Arafat's men closer to the very people a cease-fire would oblige them to act against.

And it's a structured affinity, at that: Fatah militants on the ground have created "Popular Resistance Committees" in which they've forged a common front with the major Islamist groups and leftist factions. This grassroots "government of national unity" has no truck with internationally-brokered cease-fires; its objective is to wage war on the occupation. And that gives Arafat precious little room to maneuver. In July, when Gaza PA security operative Mousa Arafat had some local Hamas militants arrested, he found his home surrounded by armed men from Fatah, and Islamist and leftist groups — the standoff ended only after he agreed to release the men and undertook to cease the arrests.

Despite mounting pressure from Washington and the Israelis to stop Palestinian attacks and arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, Arafat may be increasingly inclined to steer clear of a confrontation with the militants — and Sharon is unlikely to provide him any political cover in the form of tangible concessions to help Arafat sell any truce.

Where do we go from here?

The gunmen atop Abu Sneineh will, no doubt, find new firing positions. And while they may from time to time hold their fire when they deem it politic, they'll keep on targeting the soldiers and settlers down below, in the belief that the Israelis will ultimately pack up and leave if the price of staying becomes too high. But the settlers, many of them from the far-right Kach movement, have no intention of going anywhere, nor would the current Israeli government even consider withdrawing them.

So, no matter how much of a push-start it gets from Washington and the Europeans, it is hard to imagine the latest mooted cease-fire "rolling" as far as Hebron. And, of course, the West Bank and Gaza are dotted with Hebrons.