What must Israel do to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East? If you don’t know the State Department answer, you’re really not listening, because they’ve been repeating it, over and over, forever: “End settlement activity.” It’s a standard plank in every peace plan — Oslo, Mitchell, Four Powers Roadmap, whatever. Secretary Powell is pushing Israel to do it now, and why not? From a distance it looks like a modest, reasonable demand: a small, first step on that ever-receding road to peace.
I wanted to see what “ending settlement activity” looked like up close, on the bloody ground, in places like Hebron and Kiryat Arba — where the people say no to it, and are petitioning their government for permission to expand their “settlements.” So I went back to Hebron to look around, and to ask: Why now?
The first time I went there in December 2001, I took one of the many crowded buses from Jerusalem. When I returned in February 2003, there was only one bus a day, and it left before I did. The taxi driver, a Moroccan Jew, blanched when I told him where I wanted to go, but for 100 US dollars today, no Israeli driver refuses. The tourist trade died when the Oslo terror offensive began in September 2000 — four months after the retreat from Lebanon, Israel’s Vietnam. And in its 29th month, signs of the terror offensive’s success were apparent.
After the first 20 minutes, we were the only cars on the road. Checkpoints were reassuring — lots of soldiers with machine guns at varying heights — but I saw only two of them. Makeshift walls to shield the road from snipers were more common; we passed at least six. I asked Max if they made him feel safer. “No,” he said. “They put them up where traffic has been hit before, and snipers in the hills shoot down over them.” He looked to be in his 40s, so I asked if he had fought in Lebanon. “Yes,” he said, “14 months.” Trying to get the pained look off his face, I said: “Then how scary can this be?” “It’s worse.” “Aw, come on,” I protested, but he persisted. “In Lebanon, I wasn’t alone. I was in a good unit, with good allies.” “Arab allies?” “Yes, Arab allies.” He scowled. “And then we left them. This,” he gestured toward Hebron, “will be the same.” When we got there, he parked between military vehicles in the outermost square, and wouldn’t get out of his cab.
Max is not alone. Hebron makes a lot of Israelis uncomfortable. Those who still vote Left — about 20 percent in the January 28 election — demonize Hebron’s Jews. They call them “fanatics,” “thugs,” and “racists,” and the Western press echoes them, but few other Israelis believe it. Most who turn away from Hebron do so because, like Max, they see it as a lost cause and they hate feeling helpless. Many Israelis on the right don’t accept that either. They think Hebron is worth fighting for because they see Hebron’s Jews as democracy’s canaries in the mine — and are convinced that a Palestinian state committed to denying Jews the right to live and pray in peace would never let the rest of Israel live in peace either.
David Wilder, Hebron’s press guy, walked the block and a half from his office to Max’s cab, and we walked back through empty streets. Last time, I saw lots of kids playing. This time there were only two small Arab boys in a big square. Last time, snipers in the Judean hills above Hebron were the main threat — eight months before my first visit, one of them had put a bullet through the head of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pas, but most days, they hit only sandbags piled up behind Jewish homes. Coming from a Jerusalem where suicide-bombers had struck twice in just the last week, Hebron was a relief, a surprisingly tranquil place — then. No more. In October 2002, the Israeli army, responding to diplomatic pressure, pulled out of the all-Arab sections of Hebron, and Arabs began attacking up close here, too, not with lone suicide bombers but with larger forces.
November 16 was the worst. Jews from Kiryat Arba were walking home from Sabbath services in Hebron, as they do every Friday night. That’s why they’re here: To pray at Marat HaMachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron. The path they walk on — the path that joins the two communities — is called Worshippers Way, and that’s where they were ambushed. A terrorist disguised as an observant Jew opened fire at point-blank range, and when security men and soldiers tried, repeatedly, to rescue the wounded, they were like ducks in a shooting gallery for terrorists on both sides of the path. Hours later, when the battle ended, 15 Israelis were wounded; 12 were dead. David’s old friend, Col. Dror Weinberg, the highest-ranking IDF officer killed so far in the Oslo terror offensive, is among the dead. Other sabbath attacks followed. We talked about them, and about the Hebron-Kiryat Arba communities’ response. “We want to build houses for Jewish families along Worshippers Way, to protect the sabbath walkers,” David said. To turn it from a hostile no-man’s land into a Jewish street: That’s their “expansion plan,” the diplomatically verboten “settlement activity” they want their government to permit. In the immediate aftermath of the butchery, prime minister Sharon agreed. Later, under diplomatic pressure, he backed down. Israeli police bulldozed the temporary shelters Hebron’s Jews had built, and forcibly evicted them. They resisted passively, but did not fight back.
Is the Left right? Are these people “fanatics?” If you equate being a believer with being a fanatic, you can put aside the fact that most wear ordinary clothes and work at ordinary jobs, and call them all fanatics. Many so-called “settlements” are home to secular as well as religious Jews; Hebron is not. Only believers live here, because the don’t-know-much-about-history crowd calls this “Arab land” and insists that Jews have no future here. That’s the wisdom of the moment, but 3,800 years of history say otherwise. Abraham, the first Jew, bought this land and its cave from Ephron the Hittite then, and Jews have prayed here ever since, with only a few interruptions. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried here, beside their wives. David was crowned king here. He made it his first capital, and when the Romans razed Israel’s second capital and drove the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Hebron’s Jews were still praying at Abraham’s tomb. Life got harsher when Byzantine Greeks conquered their land in the 4th century, but a remnant hung on, and when the armies of the Prophet Mohammed conquered it in the 7th century, life improved. Jews didn’t regain their sovereignty, but they retained the right to live and worship here in peace, mostly. Crusaders drove the Jews and Arabs out in the 12th century, but Mamluks expelled the Crusaders in the 13th, and the Jews returned.
Life was more precarious under Muslim rule the second time around — the old Arab respect for Jews as “People of the Book” had faded away. Still, they hung on, and when Ottoman Turks conquered the land in the 16th century, life improved again. It remained tolerable, mostly, until the Turks lost this land to the British in 1917. Still, Hebron’s Jews managed to live peacefully with their Arab neighbors until a sudden massacre in 1929 decimated the community. They regrouped, came back in 1931, and held on until 1936 when, in response to renewed Arab attacks, the British forced them out. Jordan ruled next: No Jews allowed. When Israel defeated Jordan and the other attacking Arab armies in 1967, the Jews came back again, and here they remain — still practicing their religion in the place where it was born, as their forebears did through all the centuries before them. Call it fanaticism, if you like. I call it faith.
No matter, Israeli Leftists insist, Hebron’s Jews are “violent thugs”; last year, they claimed they had the pictures to prove it: photos of a big, burly Hebron adult pushing a policeman, and of Hebron teens throwing stones at a government tractor. (The tractor had been sent to demolish another temporary settlement at Gilad’s Farm, established to honor Gilad Zar, an Israeli security officer hit by 40 terrorist bullets on a bypass road.) Pictures of the push and the stoning were omnipresent on Israeli TV and in the Hebrew dailies — all controlled by the Left — and they made “the settlers” look very bad indeed. But then pictures showing what had happened before — pictures the Leftist press didn’t run — popped up on the websites of Israel’s alternative, conservative press. These showed Israeli teens resisting passively, and police (with their identification tags removed) poking fingers in the kids’ eyes, twisting their arms into what Israel’s Media Watch called “almost impossible positions,” and choking them until they fainted. Looking at both sets of pictures, a fair judge might conclude that settler violence isn’t at all a big problem in Israel; police brutality against disfavored Jews is.
Well, maybe, sometimes, some Leftists will concede; but the settlers deserve harsh treatment because they’re “racists.” To understand this charge, you have to ignore the fact that a number of Kiryat Arba’s residents are black Jews from Ethiopia, and focus on the Left’s Exhibit A in the racism department — the big guy who pushed a cop when the cops were abusing the kids. He’s Baruch Marzel, the most demonized man in Israel, and in February, I interviewed him at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I couldn’t interview him in Hebron because he was banned from his home there for six months as a result of the photographed push. He hasn’t been convicted of anything, but he agreed to the ban because if he’d rejected it, Leftist prosecutors and judges were set to keep him in jail until his trial — in another 12 months or so. So he camps out with his parents in Jerusalem, and his wife and nine children visit on weekends.
Baruch Marzel looks even bigger in person — his belly shakes when he laughs. If his beard were white, he’d look like Santa Claus, but at 44, it’s still black. He’s easy to demonize because when he was younger, he was a follower of the murdered Rabbi Meier Kahane, who had advocated ejecting all the Arabs from Israel, the way the Arab states ejected the Jews — about a million of them — after Israel became a state again in 1948.
Asked if he still wanted to evict all the Arabs, Marzel laughed: “No, just the ones who want to kill me.” Asked if he was dead wrong in having failed to make that crucial distinction in the past, he readily acknowledged it. Asked next about Lebanon, he said he had served in a tank regiment and got hit by 16 pieces of shrapnel. “Sounds serious,” I said. “Not when you’re as fat as I am,” he laughed. “I think all this padding saved me.” But he stopped laughing when I asked if he had had much contact with Israel’s Arab allies in Lebanon, the soldiers of the SLA. “Oh yes,” he said. “They were good soldiers, loyal allies, and we abandoned them. I’m ashamed of that, and of the shabby way we treat them now.” “What could Israel do for them now?” I asked. “Give them automatic Israeli citizenship,” he snapped, “and the same benefits every Israeli veteran is entitled to.”
Some racist, huh? But his brand of “racism” is the norm on the Israeli Right. It consists of discriminating between Arab friends and Arab enemies, and wanting to treat the two groups differently — heresy to the Israeli Left, to our State Department, and of course, to the U.N. crowd.
— Barbara Lerner is a freelance writer in Chicago who recently returned from a month in Israel.