HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - The Palestinian juice vendor cursed after an Israeli soldier stopped him from trundling his barrow into Hebron's ancient covered market.
"Twenty barrows a day pass this checkpoint, that soldier just wants to make a problem for me," 42-year-old Nabil Taha fumed, rounding on two uniformed European observers who had asked the soldier to explain his decision.
"It's forbidden," the Israeli said in Arabic. "He can carry his stuff into the souk (market), but he must leave the barrow."
The exchange occurred near the Cave of the Patriarchs, whose links to Abraham make it holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
However trivial, it illustrated the tensions seething around the 650 or so settlers living in fortified enclaves guarded by Israeli troops in the heart of this West Bank city of 180,000.
This friction often explodes into violence, making Hebron a crucible of hatred in the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The white trailer homes of one settler enclave are planted atop buildings in the Old City's warren of alleys, immediately overlooking a narrow street in the once-bustling market.
Protective steel netting spanning the street is littered with bricks, bottles and rubbish hurled down at Palestinians by settlers -- who in turn complain they are constantly harassed.
Israel rarely acts when Palestinians complain of settler violence, said Vincent Pasquier, a research officer for the European mission, known as the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), which has monitored Hebron since 1994.
"What is totally lacking is a determined will to act against the settlers in terms of arrest and prosecution," Pasquier said.
The Israelis have closed Hebron roads at 120 points, according the latest count by the 63-strong observer mission.
"It's a ghost town," Pasquier said, pointing down a desolate street where gold sellers once plied their trade. Now weeds grow a meter (3 feet) high between rows of shops with rusty shutters.
"Gas the Arabs," reads a slogan sprayed in English on the metal door of a home in the Old City, where 30,000 Palestinians are subject to Israeli army checkpoints, lookout posts and blocked streets that disrupt daily life, causing many to leave.
In 2007, Israel's B'Tselem human rights group said more than 1,000 Palestinian homes had been vacated and 1,829 shops closed in the roughly 20 percent of Hebron under full Israeli control.
The rest of Hebron is formally under Palestinian Authority rule, like other West Bank cities. But Israeli forces stormed into this zone while crushing an uprising after peace talks collapsed in 2000. They still conduct almost daily raids there.
That's a problem for the Palestinian security chief in the Hebron area, who is seeking to advance President Mahmoud Abbas's Western-backed campaign to impose order in the West Bank and meet Palestinian "road map" commitments to rein in militants.
"The Israelis just called now to say they have an operation and I must take my men off the streets," Brigadier-General Samih al-Saifi told Reuters at his headquarters. Half an hour later, the telephone rings again. The Israeli raid is over.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Saifi, who has overall command of about 3,000 security men and intelligence agents.
He said drug dealers, car thieves or criminals often flee to the Israeli-held zone, where his men cannot pursue them.
"It's like working in a mine field. Despite that, we still cooperate with the Israelis," Saifi said, listing tank shells, an explosives belt and stolen cars among confiscated items his men had recently handed over to Israeli counterparts.
Saifi wants to bring in more than 600 security men, now completing training in Jordan and Jericho, to bolster Palestinian Authority control in Hebron -- whose citizens mostly support Hamas, the Islamist rivals to Abbas's Fatah faction.
"So far there is no approval from the Israeli side, but yes, the plan is to bring them to Hebron," Saifi said.
Abbas, whose forces have received extra U.S. and European support since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in June 2007, has launched security crackdowns in Nablus, Jenin and other West Bank towns in the past year, with some success.
Extending the drive to the southern city of Hebron, where half a dozen big clans exert a powerful sway, could be tough, even if Israel gave the green light. And that seems unlikely.
Asked if a Palestinian deployment in Hebron was being discussed, an Israeli military source said: "Not currently."
Jewish settlers would oppose any such move, even though Palestinian forces would only operate in their own sector.
"Allowing them weapons, with a possible withdrawal of Israeli forces from that side of the city, is a recipe for disaster," said David Wilder, a Hebron settler spokesman.
"Israel has to understand that our security has to be in Israeli hands. They cannot put the security of Israelis living in Hebron or anywhere else into the hands of our enemies."
The settlers created four enclaves in Hebron from 1979 to 1984 to fulfill what they saw as a divine mission to restore a presence in a city whose old Jewish community was removed by British forces after a 1929 riot in which Arabs killed 67 Jews.
In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a U.S.-born doctor and settler, shot dead 29 Palestinians in the mosque built over the Cave of the Patriarchs, before survivors beat him to death.
Such bloody episodes fuel the raw hostility between the religiously driven settlers and their deeply conservative Muslim neighbors feeling the sting of Israeli occupation.
Palestinians are also divided among themselves. Rivalry between Fatah and Hamas injects a political element into security efforts by Abbas's forces in Hebron and elsewhere.
Israeli incursions to hunt for militants have continued, notably in Nablus, undermining the credibility of Palestinian forces that began cracking down there last year.
"People say, 'You ran the campaign (in Nablus) and the Israelis finished it'," said a Palestinian security source in Hebron. "Israel wants to embarrass us before the people."
Hamas, which won all of Hebron's nine parliamentary seats in 2006 elections, accuses Abbas's Palestinian Authority of working with Israel in a U.S.-approved drive against its Islamist foes.
Abbas should coordinate with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions before launching any security plan in Hebron, said Bassem Zarir, a local MP for Hamas's Reform and Change bloc.
"If the aim is law enforcement, we are with it 100 percent. But if it is to eliminate the resistance or factions opposed to the Palestinian Authority, we are against it," he said.
Few Palestinians in Hebron seemed satisfied with security in a city bedeviled by a plethora of competing authorities.
"There's the Israelis, the police and the clans," said Ziad al-Jaberi, 22, a waiter. "The clans are stronger than the police, who hide in their bases whenever the Israelis enter Hebron. This doesn't provide security for anyone."
Additional reporting by Haitham Tamimi in Hebron and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile