Hebron's clash of extremists

By H.D.S. Greenway, 11/22/2002

HEBRON HAS long been a tough and intolerant town prone to extremes. Its 130,000 Arabs are sullen and resentful, and the 450 Jews living in the city, backed by 6,000 more in Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement that overlooks the city, are as militant as any settlers in the occupied territories.

Both are uncompromising and prone to violence. Jewish settlers, armed and believing that God promised Hebron to them, regularly come into Arab quarters to trash shops, paint stars of David on the walls, and sometimes kill Arab bystanders. Meanwhile, Palestinians bide their time and assassinate settlers when they can.

The Jewish settlers in Hebron, many of the most fanatical from the United States, have often been the despair of Israeli governments of both the right and left. Golda Meir compared their behavior to Wild West. Palestinian leaders such as Feisal Husseini have compared Arab violence in Hebron to ''Chicago in the 1920s.'' Nowhere in the territories is the powerlessness of the many in contrast to the power of the few so vivid.

Friction is exacerbated in Hebron by the Cave of Machpelah, home to the tomb of biblical patriarchs, associated with Abraham and Sarah and holy to Jews and Muslims alike.

Last Friday's ambush killing of 12 Israeli soldiers, policemen, and security guards, who were protecting settlers on their way home from prayer, was only the latest outrage in the long history of Hebron bloodletting. Both sides acted predictably in the aftermath. Islamic Jihad, which brooks no peace with Israel and defies the Palestinian Authority, claimed responsibility. The Israelis moved their army back into Hebron and began leading away blindfolded youths. Settlers set up tents to begin a new and troublesome settlement on the site of the shootings, and Palestinians across the territories were photographed cheering in the streets while others stayed indoors waiting for the inevitable Israeli reprisals. And so the dreary cycle of death and vengeance marches on.

Some Palestinians may have seen last Friday's shootings as revenge for the 1994 slaying of 29 Palestinians as they knelt in prayer in the Cave of Machpelah. Some citizens of Kiryat Arba may have seen the 1994 bloodletting as revenge for the massacre of 67 Jews and the expulsion of Hebron's Jewish community in 1929. The grave of Baruch Goldstein, the US-born settler who did the 1994 shooting, became a flower-strewn shrine for Jewish extremists, much as suicide bombers are memorialized by Palestinians.

The Jewish community in Hebron reestablished itself soon after the 1967 war when militant Orthodox Jews, in defiance of the Israeli government, moved in. After the Six Day War it was government policy to allow settlements on strategic sites and keep them out of Arab population centers in order to make an eventual peace with the Arabs easier. But because of the emotional power of the 1929 massacre memories, the Labor government made an exception of Hebron. Likud, when it came to power, allowed and encouraged Jewish settlements everywhere in the occupied territories.

However, every government of Israel, both left and right, has allowed the increase of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, even though there is a case to be made that the settlements are illegal under international law. In 1993, when the Oslo process was beginning, Yitzhak Rabin said he would not allow the settler tail to wag the Israel dog, and he became the first prime minister to order a complete freeze on settlements. It never came to pass, however, and Rabin was later assassinated by a Jewish fanatic who opposed any peace based on territorial compromise.

The greatest irony of all was that dovish Ehud Barak, the prime minister who tried hardest for a final peace with the Palestinians, was responsible for more settlement activity than his predecessor, the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like to be Israel's next prime minister.

During the years of the Oslo process, when it really seemed as if Israelis and Arabs might resolve their differences, Palestinians promised to eschew political violence and Israelis promised not alter the demographics of the occupied territories while negotiations continued. Neither promise was kept.

It was encouraging to see Israel's Labor Party pull out of the dead-end coalition government of Ariel Sharon, and it is symbolically significant that the deal breaker was more government money for settlements. Now there is a new leader of the Labor opposition uncorrupted by participation in Sharon's policies: Amram Mitzna, a Rabin protege, promising to negotiate with the Palestinians rather than beat them into submission as Sharon recommends. Mitzna advocates abandoning outlying settlements in the occupied territories, perhaps even Kiryat Arba.

Would that the Palestinians could get their act together, give up the armed struggle, the hideous suicide bombings that have brought their cause nothing but ruin, and give the Israeli peace camp a chance.

In divided Hebron, however, there will be little support for political compromise. The Islamic Jihadis and the militant ultras in the settler camp both believe God speaks only to them, and therein lies the curse of our times.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.