'Jungle law' in Hebron 

HEBRON: "There is no justice. It's a jungle law here. Settlers can kill, shoot, attack, do anything," complains Palestinian coffeeshop owner Hani Abu Haikal to a group of visiting Israelis in war-torn Hebron.

He tells them he was arrested last year after hardline Jewish settlers, who live in the occupied West Bank city, attacked and broke the windows of his hilltop villa while he was entertaining Christian and Israeli friends.

And when his elderly father collapsed in shock, it took three days to negotiate an ambulance to take him to hospital. When he died, settlers danced around the ambulance going to the cemetery, handed out sweets and called death to Arabs.

As Hani talks, some of the visiting Israelis, descendants of Jews who lived in Hebron before deadly riots in 1929 forced them out, drift away distracted.

But 58-year-old Jerusalem lawyer Amnon Birman gets up and comforts him. "I was so shocked. You know my mother was born here.

"My great-grandfather was a grand rabbi," Birman says.

Heavily guarded by soldiers, the nine Israelis walk around downtown Hebron, controlled by Israel, to see the homes where their descendants once lived in harmony with Arabs but which today resembles a war zone.

The once bustling Palestinian market, now occupied by Jewish squatters, is a deserted mesh of barbed wire, camouflage netting, a rooftop Israeli sniper and walls defaced by Hebrew graffiti proclaiming "Death to the Arabs".

The group watches a Palestinian father slither on the sand under waist-high barbed wire in a dank, smelly alley as a short cut from his isolated home to the Palestinian-controlled sector. Pregnant, his wife cannot get through.

Nearby Jewish children set fire to abandoned Palestinian debris, the tassels of their prayer shawls dangling under their shirts.

Settlers routinely attack Palestinian children, prompting international peace observers such as 78-year-old John Lynes from Britain, to walk them to school each day.

"Chiefly it's stone throwing, but they are also deliberately trying to terrify them. Quite often young kids and sometimes grown-ups," says Lynes.

Born Jewish and now a quaker, cries of "Nazi" from the settlers fall on deaf ears.

Three years after a crazed Jewish settler assassinated 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, Hebron was split in two.

Most of the 166,000 Palestinians live in H1 under Palestinian control, but at least 10,000 are still trapped in the Israeli-controlled H2, held hostage to curfews, restrictions and intimidation by 500 Jewish squatters.

But things in Hebron weren't always the same. In the early 20th century, a moderate Jewish community once lived in peace with the Arabs.

Abu Haikal's grandfather ran a grocery shop with a Jewish partner and lit the homes of Jewish neighbours on the Sabbath, which under Jewish law is considered work. During the 1929 riots, he personally shielded Jews from death.

"I used to ask my father why did you protect them? He told me we lived with the Jews and looked after each other as humans," says Hani, unable to quite understand how it could have changed in a generation.

Against a backdrop of heightened Arab fear about Zionist intentions for a state in Palestine, 67 Jews were killed and another 60 were wounded in Hebron during riots in 1929 that the British proved unwilling or powerless to stop.

Despite the massacre, the descendants of those who survived are livid that today's hardline settlers seek to legitimise their presence - in defiance of international law - as their ancestors' natural successors.

"I see them as lunatics, thieves and liars. My grandfather believed in friendship with the Arabs," said Birman, whose daughter was seriously wounded in a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997.

"I don't know how you can let 400 or 500 people dominate the lives of tens of thousands. It's unbelievable," he said.

Shulamith Rahav is a retired art appreciation teacher from Tel Aviv whose father survived the massacres. Her grandfather, who taught at a Jewish seminary specialising in mysticism and tolerance, uncle and aunt were killed.

"I remember the values instilled in me by my father. The lesson was no more travesties, no more stealing and to remember all men are created in the image of God," she says, as a crowd of hostile settlers, some armed, gather round.

©  Gulf Daily News