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Palestinians in Hebron Tired Of Fighting, Look to Future

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
HEBRON, West Bank

Wossam Abu Mazen, 16, got out of school Monday and did what he does every day after class: With long, loping strides and a stone in each fist, he raced toward an Israeli checkpoint and let fly.

The checkpoint stands at Shuhada and Salaam streets, which translates as the corner of Martyrs and Peace. It seemed an apt spot to gauge whether Jews and Arabs here have begun to turn that corner, one day after their leaders initialed a landmark pact to expand self-rule to Palestinian-inhabited areas of the West Bank.

It was only to be expected that the results were mixed.

Israelis here could not be interviewed Monday. Hebron's Jewish settlers celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the start of Judaism's High Holy Days, and would not speak to a reporter. Soldiers are not permitted to talk, and the lieutenant in charge of the checkpoint said, "You'll just have to imagine what I think of serving here."

Nearly every Palestinian complained that Sunday's agreement will require Hebron, uniquely among West Bank cities, to remain an unwilling host to about 400 Jewish settlers downtown. That means that when Israel completes its agreed military withdrawal - by March 30 - this will be the only Arab city with some army troops still inside.

But many residents, tired of fighting, took a cue from their mayor and expressed cautious hope that the new deal at least will mean an improvement.

"Everything is going step by step in a positive direction," said Ali Tamimi, 59, whose 24-year-old nephew, Nidal, died in a clash at this very checkpoint not quite a year ago. "It is not enough for me as a Hebron man, but it is much better than nothing."

Abu Mazen and his friends in the "shebab," the teenagers in the street, saw occupiers in the accustomed place and responded in the accustomed way. Wave after wave of stones and bottles flew, and after a while the angry soldiers gave chase. They scattered a few percussion grenades and rumbled after Abu Mazen in full battle dress.

"They tried to catch me but I was too fast," he said later, after disappearing into an alley and reemerging. He cast his missiles, he said, "because I don't agree with the peace agreement. It's a bad agreement, and I think the settlers should go."

The striking thing, though, was that for every bystander egging him on there was another frowning at the continued, grinding street combat that is Hebron's daily lot.

Morad Sayed, 32, has seen how it sometimes ends: a body lying in the street, grieving parents, an angry funeral procession, vows of revenge.

"These are kids," he said. "They don't represent Palestinian opinion. After seven years of struggle against occupation, we would like to see a better situation."

Sunday's agreement, initialed in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, calls for Israeli military withdrawal from West Bank cities, villages, hamlets and refugee camps - to be followed by elections next spring for an 82-seat governing council and a chief executive that Palestinians will call "president."

It comes two years after mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO, and 18 months after establishment of the first footholds of Palestinian self-rule, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

Sunday's agreement, which is still unpublished but new details of which were made available, suggests that as early as next week there will be conspicuous changes in Hebron's communal life.

Immediately after Thursday's White House signing ceremony, the agreement states, Israel's security forces will reopen the Hasbahe produce market, a barbed-wired and barricaded vacant lot until now because it abuts a building used by settlers downtown.

The army also is to reopen the main entrance to the Islamic College and remove at least nine road barriers - including one on Shuhada Street - that have choked downtown traffic for more than a year.

These changes, together with the arrival of 400 armed Palestinian police and another group of unarmed municipal "inspectors," will also make for a singular test of the agreement's resilience. The most radical elements on both sides are already cheek by jowl here in Hebron: an Arab population with disproportionate support for the Islamic militants of Hamas, and a settler community that openly glorifies last year's massacre of 29 Arabs kneeling at prayer.

Mayor Mustafa Natche, interviewed in his office Monday, said he has ordered three municipal offices to return to Beit Hadassah Street, which they long ago had abandoned to the settlers down the block.