The coils of razor-sharp concentina wire had just been rolled back from the entrances to Hebron's ancient casbah, and the labyrinth of narrow alleys quickly filled with Arab shoppers hurrying to fill their food baskets in the hour and a half they had on Monday before the around-the-clock curfew resumed and they would be ordered back into their homes.
Israeli soliders, in full combat dress and rifles at the ready, dotted the marketplace, warily eyeing the milling throng, as if looking for the fleeting hint of danger that nobody spotted on Thursday when a 23-year-old yeshiva student was shot to death at point-blank range by an Arab assailant.
The street almost crackled with tension. Small knots of shoppers plowed through the crowd, intent on finishing their chores and getting out of the casbah as quickly as possible.
Then, incongruously, a group of about 15 Israeli schoolchildren from the nearby Kiryat Arba Jewish settlement marched through the marketplace, singing gaily in Hebrew, their brightly colored skullcaps bobbing and weaving through the sea of resentful Arab faces as several soldiers cleared a path for them.
It is Tu Bishvat -- the new year of the trees -- and the 12-year-olds were celebrating the holiday in religious fashion with the traditional walk through the streets of the city that King David made his first capital nearly 3,000 years ago.
Army-enforced curfews are nothing new to Hebron and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank, and the presence of Kiryat Arba children in the streets of this exclusively Arab city is not an anomaly. But the combination of the two just five days after the slaying of Jesper Jehosua Sloma, an immigrant from Denmark who lived and studied in Kiryat Arba, underscored the volatility of the relationship between Arabs and Jews after more than nine months of bitter clashes between the two groups.
Some concerned Israelis and Palestinians say they are afraid a bitter feud is developing in Hebron, fueled by Arab claims of ownership of land earmarked for the expansion of the sprawling Kiryat Arba settlement just outside town, and by the settlers' recent threats to take over houses in downtown Hebron that half a century ago were lived in by Jews.
The tensions have erupted, repeatedly since last March, when two Arab students from nearby Halhoul, including a 17-year-old girl, were shot to death during a melee with Israeli settlers. One settler, who had been accused of changing the barrel of his Uzi submachine gun to avoid detection, was acquitted of murder charges last week.
Since the Halhoul killings, militant Kiryat Arba residents have broken into Arab homes and beaten up the inhabitants and have vandalized Arab vineyards. Arab residents of Hebron have repeatedly stoned Jewish schoolbuses, slashed tires of Kiryat Arba cars and assaulted Israelis visiting Hebron.
In her apartment in the 600-family Kiryat Arba complex, Rachael Klein talked of her plans to move her family to Arab Herbon in spite of the cycle of violence.
"The purpose of this [settlement] was to return the Jews to downtown Hebron, where 69 martyrs were slaughtered in 1929," she said, referring to the Arab riots in that violent year of Jewish immigration to Palestine.
"Hebron is where we should be. It's Abraham's city. It's David's city.
It is the rightful place of the Jews . . . And if the Arabs want to attack, they will attack," Klein said.
There are 56 buildings in central Hebron that Klein and other Kiryat Arba residents say were Jewish owned before 1929. She said that she, her husband and two teen-aged daughters will move into one of them as soon as the government agrees to rehabilitate the house.
The Israeli Cabinet, apparently in response to the Kiryat Arba residents' outrage over Thursday's killing, has indicated it will approve such a housing project next week, an action that Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon described as an "appropriate Zionist response" to the murder of Sloma.
When asked if she is afraid to live among hostile Arabs, Klein said, "There wouldn't be anything to be afraid of if the government didn't show its weakness to the Arabs."
Showing strength to the Arabs, Klein said, should include permanently closing all Arab shops in the vicinity of the killing, deporting Hebron Mayor Faad Kawasma to an Arab state and imprisoning "all Arabs known to be close to the Palestine Liberation Organization."
Yosi Weiner, 31, another Kiryat Arba resident and secretary of the settlement, also suggested the only way to curtail violence is for the government to show a strong hand in dealing with the Arabs.
"Arabs only understand power. If you are strong, you are good in their eyes. If you show weakness, you are bad. It's all they know," Weiner said. e
Weiner, who said he carries a revolver when he visits central Hebron, added, "It's a question of power. If you have a gun, you look strong. This student [Sloma], he was unarmed . . . He was alone."
Kawasma, mayor of the 50,000 Arabs of Hebron, said in an interview he does not understand what the curfew, in its fifth day, is supposed to achieve.
"What is the aim? To punish all the people? The women and the girls? It's unbelievable. Why punish the whole city?
"If there is a murder in Tel Aviv, do they put all of Tel Aviv under curfew?" Kawasma asked.
He complained that since the slaying, Kiryat Arba settlers have been allowed into the Tomb of the Prophets -- holy to both Jews and Moslems -- but that Arabs have not, and that settlers seized the loudspeakers used by the Moslem muezzin, normally used for calls to prayers, and ordered Arabs away. That incident led to another rock-throwing melee, in which an elderly Arab was blinded in one eye, Kawasma said.
Officials in the military government say they hope to ease the tension, possibly by gradually lengthening the period in which Arabs are let out of their houses to shop each day, a proposal Kawasma said has not been broached to him by the authorities.
But the question that neither the Kiryat Arba residents nor Arab Hebronites have been able to answer is, what will happen when the curfew is lifted entirely, and Israeli settlers begin moving into the first five vacant Jewish-owned houses in downtown Hebron?
"What do they expect me to say?" Kawasma asks. "That this is the land of Israel? That I accept their settlements?"
The mayor predicted that bitterness will build up among the increasingly resentful Arabs.
"If they don't say it on their tongues, they will feel it in their hearts. The soldiers cannot change their feelings," Kawasma said.