Roadblock to peace lies in a solitary street in Hebron

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HEBRON, West Bank — The partial reopening of a key street here has done little to quell anxieties in this tense and divided town.

Hebron's Jews and Arabs have different names for the street, revealing the sharp political differences that have long threatened to tear apart the City of the Patriarchs.

The Jews call it King David Street, named after the biblical king who established his first capital there.

The Palestinians call it Shuhada Street. Shuhada is the Arabic word for "martyrs," the honorary term bestowed on terrorists and others who die as part of the effort to bring about the destruction of the Jewish state.

This visitor came to Hebron only days after the street was partially reopened to Palestinian traffic — a move that has satisfied neither of the two populations living in tense proximity to each other.

The Palestinians were angry that the street's opening after nearly four years was only partial, and that few of their vehicles are allowed to traverse it.

Hebron's Jewish settlers, meanwhile, are upset that the street was opened at all — a move they view as a threat to their safety. They warn of "big trouble" if and when the street is fully opened to Palestinian traffic.

The reopening of the street came just days before Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy sat down Monday in Washington with Palestinian officials to discuss ways to advance the ailing peace process.

Protesting the talks, hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators in Hebron chanting "Death to America! Death to Israel!" staged a mock funeral for the peace process.

On the street itself, a tense quiet prevailed as it remained closed to Palestinian traffic.

Israeli cars could travel the street — so long as they did not enter the area controlled by Palestinian police.

The area looked like a resort town after the tourist season had ended. Half the shops fronting the street were closed; only a few cars broke the quiet.

The street, which straddles Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, was closed for security reasons after the February 1994 Hebron massacre, when Dr. Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians worshipping at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Israeli security officials said at the time that they closed the street to protect three Jewish enclaves located in the immediate vicinity of the thoroughfare, which links downtown Hebron to the main marketplace.

As part of January's Hebron Agreement, in which Israeli troops pulled back from 80 percent of the town, the United States agreed to finance the refurbishing of the street, a project that carried a final price tag of $2.5 million.

The renovation work involved putting in new water and sewage systems, beautifying the store's facades and adding decorative, antique-style street lamps.

But when construction work was completed, the settlers staged a massive demonstration against reopening the street, and the Israeli authorities decided to use their prerogative under the agreement and reopen the street gradually.

Israel's security procedures have created the following scenario: When a Palestinian car drives down the street from the area under Palestinian control, it is stopped by an Israeli army barrier.

Only special-permit holders, such as drivers of city trucks, taxis and emergency services vehicles, and residents of the street are allowed to pass.

All other vehicles are diverted to another street that forces the driver to take a roundabout route way to reach the marketplace.

Cars with Israeli license plates, however, are whisked through the Israeli checkpoint.

A large portion of the settlers' concerns about the reopening focus on Beit Hadassah, which fronts on the street. They fear that terrorists will be able to launch an attack on the house, even though it is heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers.

Beit Hadassah, which now houses several Jewish families, had been vacant of Jews since 1929, when local Arabs staged a pogrom that devastated the Jewish community.

The Jewish presence in Hebron was re-established in 1979, when a group of Jews moved from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba into Beit Hadassah.

In addition to Beit Hadassah, there are two other Jewish enclaves located near the street.

The Hebron settlers, who staunchly defend their right to live in the town so rich in biblical history, number about 500.

Trying to go about their lives in a town with more than 130,000 Palestinians, many of whom are hostile to their presence, the settlers are wary of what may happen when the street is fully opened.

"The main problem is the extreme proximity of the street to the Jewish houses," said Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron.

"Can you imagine four Palestinian cars stopping by Beit Hadassah? Thirty to 40 people jump out, and they are inside the house before the soldiers know what hit them."

The Palestinians dismiss such fears.

"Nonsense," said Idris Zahde, one of the workers who helped with the street's renovation. "This [fear] has nothing to do with the reopening of the street."

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his security forces "will not allow any attacks on the settlers because this would be a violation of the agreement."

But Arnon does not believe in the assurances from the Palestinian Authority. He remembers how Palestinian protesters, armed with stones and gasoline bombs, came extremely close to the Jewish Quarter earlier this year — and he believes that it happened with Arafat's blessing.

Arnon also charges that the Palestinian Authority has violated the Hebron Agreement by banning Israeli cars from entering the area within their control.

"I demand reciprocity," he said. "Let me drive like a free human being in all parts of Hebron. Then the Palestinians will be allowed to drive through Shuhada Street."

Some local Arabs blame the Palestinian leadership for the slow progress in getting the street fully opened.

"The street will not be reopened until the Arab leaders change," said Abed Rahim, a passer-by. "Yes, also Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"The Koran will determine who are the leaders we need," he added.

His friend, Ribhi Abu Sneineh, looked at him with a scornful smile. "Neither Arafat nor [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will decide when the street opens. Only the settlers."