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July 30, 2001
Palestinians imprisoned by Arafat's flawed deal

By Phil Reeves


Wars create lies as fast as corpses. Take "curfew" and "closure". What nice, cool, BBC Radio 4 kind of words. Isn't curfew the word you use when you order your stroppy teenager to stay at home after a night out on the Special Brew? And "closure" sounds like a road, blocked off because of flooding.

But the Arabs of Hebron know other meanings. They know that "closure" means economic misery, and "curfew" means to be imprisoned for up to 24 hours a day, under threat of being arrested, beaten, jailed or shot for "looking suspicious" if they so much as stray beyond their doorstep. The king of lying, Jeffrey Archer, has more freedom. Three British aid agencies - Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children - have warned this week that violence, insecurity and poverty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could turn an already dire situation into "a full-scale humanitarian crisis".

They said that nearly two thirds - some 64 per cent - of Palestinian households now live below the poverty line, and an estimated 74 per cent of the 3 million Palestinian population qualify for emergency food assistance from the United Nations. There were, they noted, disturbing indications that the population's ability to cope with the cumulative effects of "closure" - better described as a siege - is coming to an end. Hebron, once a flourishing West Bank city, has felt the brunt more than most. The entire city has been blockaded by the Israeli army for months. But the 35,000 Arabs living in the Israeli-controlled sector have been under curfew for more than 128 days since last September. I went there the other day, on a bright summer's mid-afternoon. Streets that I remember as full of activity before the Palestinian intifada were utterly deserted.

A small boy was flying a kite from a rooftop, searching in the sky for the freedom denied to him on the ground. The babble of TV sets and bursts of conversation, muffled by the thick walls of Hebron's old stone houses, occasionally interrupted the hush. One had the surreal sense that everyone was hiding, waiting to leap out and shout "Surprise!"

From time to time, an Israeli army jeep thundered through, checking that everyone was locked away. But no one was on the streets, except for some Israeli soldiers, loading a lorry, and a few armed Jewish settlers, whose presence in this overwhelmingly Arab city has provided Israel with a reason for imposing this misery.

Although the sun was high, it was as quiet as the dead of night - in contrast to the frenetic, teeming day of the market place on the city's Arab side a few hundred yards away, or to the hum of the fenced-in Jewish settlement of neighbouring Kiryat Arba, an oasis of wide roads, modern buildings and green lawns through which we drove to get into Hebron. (No one bothers with euphemisms there; "No Arabs," announced the armed security guard at the electric iron gate, as he glowered into our car before letting us through).

Hebron's imprisoned residents are now seeing the results of an agreement concluded in 1997 by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister of the day, and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the flaws of which are becoming more cruelly apparent. Eighty per cent of the city of 120,000 people was handed to the Palestinians, who assumed control over municipal services - local security, education, health, traffic and so on.
But Israel kept all the main levers of power including crucial parts of the city's infrastructure, such as water and electricity. The other 20 per cent of the city also remained in its hands on the staggering basis of protecting some 450 Jewish settlers - many recent immigrants. They refuse to budge from a city in which they form 0.03 per cent of the population because they see it as historically and religiously their own.
Their continued presence - armed by the Israel Defence Forces, guarded by thousands of troops - laid the ground for the inter-communal strife that has now erupted. The agreement meant that the Israeli army remained in overall charge, controlling the entrances, and looming over the city from an army base on a hill to the south.
Hebron became a model in miniature of the larger configuration of power and control that Israel was using the Oslo negotiations to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: an island of limited Palestinian autonomy, cut off from the outside world and set in a landscape which Israel rules.

No one understands this better than Mustafa Abdel-Nabi Natshe, the Palestinian Mayor of Hebron. During the Oslo negotiations, he pressed Mr Arafat not to sign a deal that allowed the 450 settlers to stay, perpetuating a terrible fault-line between the city's two communities, which now produces almost daily acts of horror - the killing, for instance, of a 10-month-old settler baby by a Palestinian sniper, or the killing by the army of unarmed Arabs, and the bombardment of Palestinian homes with tanks .

Mr Natshe is surely right when he says that life is "becoming more and more unbearable". The industrial zone in H2, the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron, is closed. Electricity has been regularly interrupted, not least because Israeli tanks shelled the transformers. Businesses have been ruined.

And in a hospital intensive care unit nearby, lies one of the latest victims - 10-year-old Marwar Ishrif. She has a bullet in the head, which hit her as she slept in bed. There aren't many nice, cool BBC Radio 4 words to sum all this up. But curfew and closure won't do.