National Catholic Reporter Oct. 18, 2002

Hebron: a West Bank magnet for trouble

Second in a two-part series:

Part I (NCR, Oct. 11) looked at the growing alliance between fundamentalist Jews in Israel and fundamentalist Christians in this country. This installment looks at how Jewish settlers known for extremism are affecting life in the West Bank city of Hebron.

By MARGOT PATTERSON

Hebron, West Bank

It's a beautiful drive from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Hebron. Low stone walls wind through rocky hillsides. The scenery is pastoral; the biblical heartland looks almost uncannily just as you might imagine it would. On this particular day in March there are no shepherds about, but the service taxi I'm in, a minivan with 11 people squeezed into it, passes a man riding a mule. We also pass three Muslim women hitchhiking. Wearing long raincoats and headscarves, they stick out their thumbs in a gesture recognizable the world over.

The taxi stops at two Israeli checkpoints where the men in the van pile out and at gunpoint lift up their shirts to show Israeli soldiers they're not carrying explosives. The main road to Hebron is blocked, but the van is sturdy enough to drive over a mound of dirt heaped on a smaller exit road, and within minutes the taxi pulls into Hebron's busy downtown.

Hebron is a magnet for trouble on the West Bank. A Palestinian city of about 123,000, Hebron is home to some of the most extreme members of the Israeli settler movement. In 1968, a little less than a year after the Six Day War gave Israel control of the West Bank, 60 Orthodox Jews, disciples of the Messianist Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, took rooms in a Hebron hotel for the Passover holiday and refused to leave. Eventually, the Israeli government moved them to a military outpost, which in time became Kiryat Arba, a Jewish town on the edge of Hebron. Then in 1979 under cover of night a group of 15 women and 45 children from Kiryat Arba entered the Hadassah Clinic in Hebron itself. Despite entreaties by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, they refused to leave. Today about 500 settlers, protected by about 1,200 Israeli soldiers, live surrounded by a sea of Palestinians.

I was curious to visit Hebron. An English journalist in Jerusalem had ranted about the settlers in Hebron. She said they threw garbage at the local people, ripped off young Muslim women's headscarves, turned over the fruit and vegetable carts of Palestinian vendors, and broke into Palestinian shops. "You have to go there to believe it," she told me.

Another chance conversation with a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team working in Hebron turned up other information just as startling. A project of the Mennonite church, the Church of the Brethren, Friends United Meeting and other Christian denominations, the team places trained peacemakers in situations of conflict to defuse tension. Since 1995 the team has operated in Hebron. The Hebron settlers frequently paint graffiti such as "Death to Arabs" and Star of David emblems on Palestinian shop windows, I was told. Among many of the settlers, "Nazi" is a casual term of abuse.

"Anyone who doesn't agree with them is a Nazi," said Mary Lawrence, an Episcopal minister and Christian Peacemaker Team volunteer in Hebron who described being spit upon and called a Nazi as she escorted Palestinian children to school. Settlers who mistreat Palestinians do so with relative impunity, Lawrence said, with the Israeli police given little authority to stop them. "The settlers have friends higher up who shelter them often against complaints," said Lawrence, who reported that the Israeli police are often sued by settlers if the police intervene to uphold the law.

"The settlers not only harass the Palestinians around them but they harass the police and the soldiers who are sent to protect them," said Lewis Roth, president of Americans for Peace Now, an American Zionist organization that partners with the Israeli peace movement Peace Now. "Hebron has attracted some of the most reactionary elements of the settlement movement. You have lots of people who are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and the outlawed Kach movement," Roth said, referring to the founder of the Jewish Defense League in New York who moved to Israel in 1971 and founded a political party in Israel called Kach. Later outlawed as racist, the party advocated expelling all Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories and making sexual relations between Jews and Arabs illegal.

Like the settlement of Netzarim in Gaza, where 200 fundamentalist settlers live surrounded by 200,000 impoverished Palestinians, the settlements in Hebron vividly illustrate just how problematic -- and provocative -- some settlements can be and how troublesome.

"They're flashpoints, thorns in the eyes of the Arabs, which is their purpose in the eyes of the fundamentalists," said Ian Lustick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the settlement movement.

Redirected anger

"A lot of settlers feel a deep pain and anger over the abandonment of Jews during the Holocaust. A lot of the anger that should have normally been directed at the Germans or Nazis has been redirected toward the Palestinians," said Haim Dov Beliak, a California rabbi who studied at an Israeli yeshiva headed by Rabbi Kook that was at the ideological center of the settler movement in the 1970s.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs makes Hebron the second-holiest site in Judaism after Jerusalem. Revered by Muslims as well as Jews, the tomb is where Abraham and Sarah are said to be buried along with Rachel, Jacob, Leah, even Adam and Eve. Since the advent of the settlers, coordinating worship services at the tomb has become a source of friction between local Muslims and Jews, one of many, it's fair to say.

"You have to understand Hebron to the Jewish people. Hebron is the first Jewish city in the land of Israel, and this is where Abraham lived and this is where King David lived," said David Wilder, spokesman for the settlers in Hebron.

Hebron was a divided city when I visited last spring. Most of the city lay in H1 -- the area of Hebron administered by the Palestinian Authority, while the settlers lived in a part of town administered by Israel called H2. The difference between the two was striking. I walked through a busy, raucous market to meet a representative of the Christian Peacemaker Team. Throngs of people jostled each other to buy fruits, vegetables, almonds and other goods. The two of us walked further down a street, and suddenly we were alone. The shutters on the houses were closed. Nobody was about. The only visible creature was a cat that appeared out of an alleyway. It was the fourth day of curfew for the Palestinian inhabitants of H2, but hardly uncommon. Two hundred of the last 300 days had been spent under curfew, I was told.

"We've experienced many, many curfews since 1967," said Zleeka Muhtaseb, a Hebron resident. "I've been living here under occupation for almost 35 years. Many times we have problems with soldiers and settlers. We've gotten used to how they think. They think the Palestinians should leave the area. They use the religious book as a way to justify the confiscation of land. When we argue with them, they'll say it's in the Torah," said Muhtaseb.

A slender woman who speaks fluent English, Muhtaseb said she tries to always stand her ground with the settlers, that if she shows fear or tries to flee, they become more violent, not less. But apart from verbal ripostes, her ability to respond to the settlers is limited.

"If the settlers attack me and I respond back, I will either be shot dead, shot wounded or arrested. But if it's a settler who attacks a Palestinian, he will be protected by the soldiers at least and many times by the police," said Muhtaseb.

Palestinian snipers sporadically shoot into the settlements from the nearby hills. Settler violence against Palestinians is more common, said Christian Peacemaker Team volunteers. Settlers confiscate Palestinian orchards and prevent Palestinians from harvesting their crops; they break into shops in the Old City and steal merchandise, or break into homes when Palestinians are away, peacemaker volunteers said. Recently the peacemaker team documented an incident in Tel Rumeida, a settlement of trailers in Hebron that Prime Minister Sharon has recently decided will be expanded. Settlers there set fire to the laundry lines of an elderly Palestinian woman. A settler youth also placed lighted candles inside the grilles of her downstairs windows and greased her steps with soap so she would slip on them when she rushed outside.

Even the volunteers have been subject to occasional violence from the settlers. Lawrence said the previous summer she and Sr. Anne Montgomery, a Roman Catholic nun and another peacemaker volunteer, were attacked by a mob of young Israeli boys from the settlement armed with sticks and stones and throwing sand. "The soldiers just stood by. The boys went and vandalized shops. The first thing the police said was, 'We can't arrest them. They're under 12,' which makes us think it was strategic on the settlers' part. The boys then started attacking the police officers, who just stood there. They [the boys] did this with broad grins, which made me realize they think they can do anything with complete impunity."

More often, there are threats of violence. Once Lawrence reported that she had been speaking to a policeman about a young boy throwing stones when three young settler women walked by. One of them stared at her and made a throat-slitting gesture.

Christian peacemaker volunteer Kathleen Kern said there's a stereotype that the most violent settlers are American.

"We encounter the vicious ones more often because they're looking to provoke you," said Lawrence.

An oddity of life in the Old City of Hebron are wire nets stretched over rooftops. The nets are strewn with plastic bottles, paper and garbage. Kern explained that many Palestinian families have a protective screen over their courtyard to protect them from settlers dropping blocks of concrete and other objects onto them. If the mesh is broken, the Palestinians have to apply for a permit to get a new screen and must pay a fee both for the new permit and the new screen .

"It's strategic," peacemaker volunteer LeAnne Clausen said of the violence committed by the settlers. "It's trying to drive Palestinians away. It's very similar to what a paramilitary might try to do."

The suicide of Oslo

Initially, I was concerned that the public relations director of the settlement in Hebron might not put me in touch with a genuine, hardcore settler, the real McCoy. Neve Gordon, an Israeli acquaintance and a professor at Israel's Ben Gurion University, told me not to worry. "People who live in the Hebron settlement are 100 percent fanatic. You cannot live in Hebron and not be a fanatic," Gordon said. "They are the most violent of the settlers."

Maayan Bal, a 26-year-old Israeli architecture student I met while traveling, almost exploded when the subject of the Hebron settlers came up. "They are lunatics," she declared.

But Rachel Klein, whom I spoke to by phone, sounded reassuring. Certainly, she didn't seem a wild-eyed fanatic. A grandmother and former social worker, Klein has lived in Kiryat Arba since 1975 and is the spokeswoman for the municipality. Not everyone in Kiryat Arba is there for religious reasons, she said. About 40 percent of the community are not religious but are there for nationalist reasons.

"I think we're misunderstood," said Klein of the settlers at Kiryat Arba. "We're sometimes considered extremists. There's a misperception that we're provocative, that we're causing trouble for the Arabs and causing them poverty and a poor standard of life. We're following a completely natural way of thought, a natural policy of life. We're trying to live our own lives in difficult conditions and not with the full support of all Israelis."

Formerly a supporter of Ariel Sharon, Klein said she had been disappointed by Sharon, whom she felt had been swayed too much by the left. Meir Kahane, the militant leader first of the Jewish Defense League and then of Kach, had kept his allure in her eyes. "Meir Kahane was popular in Hebron," Klein said. "What he was able to do for the Jews in America, if he'd been able to carry them out here, might have prevented a lot of troubles today."

Klein was uncompromising in talking about what she perceives as Israel's right to the West Bank, land conquered by Israel in the 1967 war and which she and other like-minded Israelis call Judea and Samaria after the Israeli kingdoms named in the Bible.

"The West Bank is Israel. We call it Judea and Samaria. There is no West Bank. All that we have is Israel.

"We shouldn't give up one inch of Israel, whether this will bring war or not," Klein said. "We're in the middle of a war because the Arabs are trying to take over bit by bit the whole of Israel."

David Wilder, public affairs spokesman for the settlers in Hebron, was even harsher.

"A journalist once asked me to define in one word how I react when I hear the word 'Oslo,' and I say 'suicide.' The whole concept behind Oslo is the destruction of the state of Israel," Wilder said.

"You're talking about barbarians, about barbaric people," Wilder said of the Palestinians. "Anybody who can put an explosive belt on, thinking that because he does that he's going to heaven, is barbarian. You're not talking about human beings."

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org