Month after month the name Hebron was the byword for a seemingly unsolvable diplomatic dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hebron: the last major Palestinian city under complete Israeli occupation, a status that was originally supposed to end last March, if only the two sides could agree on the terms for self-rule. Last week, just when it looked as if they might, the name Hebron reclaimed its place as shorthand for bloodlust and mayhem.
Noam Friedman, 22, had a history of mental disorders and a record of threatening to murder Arabs, but he nonetheless somehow wound up in the Israeli army, a uniformed man equipped with an M-16 rifle. On Jan. 1 he put it to use, kneeling down in front of Hebron's outdoor vegetable market, then opening fire on vendors and shoppers as close as within 15 ft. In just seconds, an alert army lieutenant, Avi Buskila, jumped him and, with the help of two other soldiers, snatched his rifle and jerked him away. Because of Buskila's quick action and perhaps Friedman's poor shooting, the harm was less than it could have been. Friedman got off 20 rounds, wounding six people but killing none. Still, the episode frayed the city's nerves, reminding residents of the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers by a Jewish fanatic.
It also underscored what makes Hebron such a difficult case. Both Jews and Muslims consider the city holy because it is host to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the supposed resting place of Abraham, who is central to both religions, and of his family. Attracted by the site, some 400 Israeli settlers, mostly religious extremists, live in enclaves amid Hebron's 100,000 Arabs. Mindful of a 1929 pogrom against Jewish Hebronites, the settlers fear that Palestinian self-rule will lead to their slaughter. Friedman, an Orthodox Jew from a settlement near Jerusalem, said he acted to stop any Israeli retreat in Hebron. Pumping his fist and grinning in triumph at reporters after his arrest, he repeated the nationalist chant "Hebron always and forever."
It is unclear how long his smile will last. On the very day of Friedman's outrage, negotiators were predicting a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to put the final touches on a pact for self-rule in Hebron. After the shooting, that schedule was pushed back, but U.S. officials brokering the talks say it is still just a matter of time before an accord is reached. Such an agreement was already signed in September 1995 by Arafat and the previous Israeli government. But Netanyahu, after his election last May, insisted on reopening negotiations in order to obtain better security guarantees for Hebron's Jews.