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Israelis, Arabs Swept Up In Historic Shift Of Power

At the Imira, the hilltop stone fortress where Israel military leaders ruled Hebron for 30 years, the changing tide of history swept through Friday.

The images, especially at this imposing ex-Israeli jail, were stunning:

A young Palestinian climbed a 100-foot-tall antenna to plant his national flag at the top. Scores of Palestinian men who were once held prisoner at Imira searched for their interrogation rooms. And several thousand Hebronites simply came to stare at the remarkable sight of police officers who are Palestinians.

“In the best of my dreams, I could never imagine this,” said Ali Mohammed, 30, a vegetable merchant. “This is like the Bastille in France. It is a symbol of darkness, a symbol of victims, and we see it has fallen down.”

At dawn Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first peace deal with the Palestinians unfolded with ease.

Israel turned over 80 percent of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority, pulled back its forces to the remaining 20 percent, and erected new roadblocks all around Hebron.

Even though such handovers of power have happened in six other West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip over the last three years, the people of Hebron - Muslim and Jew - seemed to have a hard time believing it.

In different parts of the city, Muslims and Jews walked around with a look of bewilderment. It was partly because many felt they would never see this day, not with the coming to power of the tough-talking Netanyahu and not after the three days of clashes in September between Israeli and Palestinian forces that killed more than 75 people.

The transition came two days after Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat shook hands on the deal, one day after both their Cabinets approved the arrangement and only hours after the Israeli Parliament gave the go-ahead.

But Israelis and Palestinians alike worried that an extremist from either side might stage an attack to wreck the deal.

Hebron, a city about 20 miles south of Jerusalem of more than 100,000 Palestinians and 450 Jewish settlers, is home to extremist and well-armed Jews and Muslims who refuse to trust each other.

The Jewish settlers are the only Jews in the West Bank who live among a Palestinian population. They are in Hebron because this is the oldest Jewish city, where their patriarch Abraham purchased a field as a burial spot for his wife Sarah. The site is now the Tomb of the Patriarchs, as it is known by the Jews, or the Ibrahimi Mosque, as it is called by the Muslims.

On Friday, the area controlled by Israel was swarming with soldiers. During a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, there were so many Israeli border police, riot police and army soldiers in Gross Square that passers-by couldn’t avoid brushing against their M-16 rifles and Uzi machine guns.

Standing nearby, David Wilder, the spokesman for the settlers, looked dazed.

The handover, he said, was “a day of mourning, not a day of celebration. It’s a tragic day.”

On a hillside, 12 settlers ripped their clothing in a traditional Jewish expression of mourning. Dov Lior, a rabbi from the Kiryat Arba settlement next to Hebron, read psalms, then used a pocket knife to cut the shirt collar of each man.

“This is a sign of mourning over the destruction of the Land of Israel,” Lior said.

In the Palestinian areas, especially around the four new police stations, the atmosphere was markedly relaxed.

“This is historical,” said Palestinian Col. Zacher Mujahad, as he twirled in his hands eight tiny plastic Palestinian flags. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this day - 10 months.”

“Not 10 months,” police officer Mohammed Salim corrected him. “It’s been about 30 years.” Palestinians hope for more, though. They want the settlers out.

“Maybe we feel happy to see the Palestinian flag flying over us, but we’ve had to give something in return,” said a man who identified himself only as Akram, 24. “You just look at the Jewish neighborhoods and see two soldiers for each citizen. Life will be impossible there for the Palestinians if the settlers provoke them.”


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