The Israel Defense Forces has finally closed one of its main outposts in Hebron to Jewish settlers.

The Mitkanim outpost, adjacent to the city's Avraham Avinu neighborhood, is permanently staffed by a company of soldiers. But while all other army bases and outposts nationwide are closed to civilians unless they obtain a special permit, Mitkanim has served Avraham Avinu residents for 30 years as a shortcut to Shuhada Street, which is one of Hebron's main arteries.

Many soldiers and officers have complained about this practice in the past, noting that civilians, including children, are roaming about amid soldiers preparing to go out on patrol, when all their weapons are lying around. There have even been cases in which arms and ammunition disappeared from the outpost and were later found in the homes of Hebron settlers. But until recently, such complaints were always dismissed by superior officers with the phrase "that's how things are in Hebron."

Three weeks ago, however, the commander of the Hebron Brigade, Col. Guy Hazut, finally decided to end the practice and ordered the outpost closed to civilians. At the same time, a new exit from Avraham Avinu to Shuhada Street was opened for the settlers' use.

"It was impossible to let the situation continue," explained an officer serving in the city. "What would have happened if a child had played with a hand grenade and pulled out the pin?"

Army sources said that despite the opening of the new exit to Shuhada Street, settlers objected to the decision. But Noam Arnon, a spokesman for Hebron's Jewish community, denied this. He termed the decision "appropriate," asserting that it had been made "after some half-witted Arab entered the outpost and ran amok."

Officers in the area said there has recently been a decrease in tensions between both settlers and soldiers and settlers and Palestinians in Hebron. "The settlers are sick of their image as the lunatics from Hebron," one said, "so they are taking care to keep out extremist elements who had been coming from the hilltops in Samaria [the northern West Bank] in order to clash with Palestinians in the city."

Settlers have also been doing nightly rounds of the city's army outposts to distribute coffee and cake.

"As long as there's no incitement to disobey army orders, we don't prevent soldiers from accepting coffee and cake" from the settlers, a senior officer explained.