There is an interesting drama developing around one of the West Bank’s most radical and controversial Jewish settlements. Home to the Ma’arat HaMachpelah—the Tomb of the Patriarchs—Hebron is a sacred cow for Israel’s religious right. Unlike most settlements, which stand on hills above Palestinian cities, the Jewish settlement in Hebron exists in the city’s very heart, protected vigilantly by the Israeli army. Although there’s no talk of dismembering the settlement altogether, much less of dismantling all the settlements, which, as both Shimon Peres and Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin have recently warned, could precipitate a civil war, Israeli security forces are threatening to evacuate a group of settlers from a building they occupied illegally in Hebron over a year ago. The settlers are fighting back.
On March 19, 2007, hundreds of settlers from both Hebron and Kiryat Arba, the larger but equally radical settlement above Hebron, moved into a 4-story, 3,500 square foot building on the road linking Hebron to Kiryat Arba. According to the settlement’s official Hebron website, “The building was purchased from its previous owner via an office in Jordan for an approximate price of $700,000. The previous owner transferred all his legal rights to the building to the Hebron Jewish community.” As it turned out, the documents “proving” Jewish ownership were forged, and this past Sunday, Israel’s High Court gave the building’s occupants until Wednesday to leave.
By last night, they had not budged. And although the Defense Ministry chose not to use force, yet, presumably not wishing on themselves a repeat of Amona’s 2006 evacuation, it seems unlikely that the settlers will move without some prodding.
Here’s what Hebron spokesmen said when the building, given the Orwellian name of Beit HaShalom–the house of peace–was first occupied:
The house of peace, on the main road between Hebron and Kiryat Arba is an additional link in the growth of the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Bonding Hebron and Kiryat Arba, this building will provide homes for dozens, if not hundreds of Israelis, waiting to live in Hebron. It is a tremendous asset which marks another step in the renewal of the Jewish community of Hebron. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the return to Hebron, during the 1967 Six Day war. What could be a better way to celebrate the return to Hebron than by dedicating a new building! It is our hope that this will truly be a place of peace, and that our new neighbors will finally accept that Jews have returned home, to the first Jewish city in the Land of Israel, never ever to leave again.
At an emergency meeting organized by Kiryat Arba’s head rabbi, Dov Lior, on Sunday, settlers said that they would be “uncompromising, but not violent” in their opposition to the evacuation. At the same time, according to Ha’aretz, protesters warned that an evacuation of Beit HaShalom would precipitate “Amona part two.” In other words, the settlers want the security forces to initiate the violence.
By late last night, though, low-level violence was already underway. Ha’aretz reported today that protesters had attacked Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, spraying one with turpentine, had defaced a local mosque and several Palestinian homes with the graffiti “Mohammed Pig,” and had vandalized a nearby cemetery.
For now, Defense Minister Ehud Barak hopes the settlers will leave Beit Hashalom voluntarily. But in the end, Israel’s government will likely have to choose: either it will forcibly remove the settlers, potentially resulting in serious violence but helping symbolically renew its commitment to a two-state solution, or it will allow the settlers to expand their hold on the West Bank’s most controversial settlement, hammering one more nail into Israel’s own coffin.
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