Special Analysis Hebron Events Bring into Focus Smoldering Problems on West Bank

The ugly events in Hebron over the Yom Kippur weekend have brought into sharp focus the long smoldering problem of Jewish-Arab relations on the West Bank. If anything, they have hardened opinions among those Israelis who believe the government must be scrupulously even-handed and others who insist that Jewish rights are paramount and that the Arabs must be dealt with harshly, in effect, “taught a lesson.”

The wide gap between “hawks” and “doves” has serious political ramifications, especially with national elections due to be held next year. The government has been walking a tightrope, firmly putting down Arab rioting on the West Bank while at the same time, restricting Jewish access to towns like Hebron which contain shrines holy to religious Jews and Moslems alike.

The government’s hope is to avoid violence between Jews and Arabs. Critics on both sides have accused the Rabin administration of procrastination. The “doves” are angered by the government’s reluctance to take action against the militant Gush Emunim, whose base is the Orthodox township of Kiryat Arba adjacent to Hebron and who have consistently defied government orders to keep out of the Arab town.

GUSH EMUNIM’S VIEW

The recent failure of the military authorities to enforce their arrest of Kiryat Arba’s leader and prime agitator, Rabbi Moshe Lewinger, who entered Hebron last week in direct violation of the Military Government’s orders, is cited as a case in point. The continued presence of Gush Emunim squatters at Kadum in the heart of Arab populated Samaria is another. The Cabinet decided last May that the squatters would be removed to an alternative settlement site approved by the government. But so far, no attempt has been made to implement that edict.

The Gush, supported by religious and nationalist elements, insist that the West Bank belongs to Israel by divine mandate and that Jews have the right to settle anywhere in that territory and, especially, to worship freely at Jewish shrines there. Although Kiryat Arba is a separate township, its residents have been demanding the establishment of a permanent Jewish presence in Arab Moslem Hebron.

They say they are merely reclaiming Jewish property destroyed by Arab rioters in 1929 when 63 Hebron Jews were massacred and the rest driven out of the town. The most recent confrontations between Kiryat Arba Jews and Hebron Arabs occurred when the former laid claim to the ruins of the ancient Ohel Avraham synagogue razed by the Arabs 47 years ago.

The desecration of Jewish religious artifacts in the Machpela Cave on the eve of the Day of Atonement understandably enraged Jews all over Israel. The damage done by Arab vandals was shown on television and in newspaper photographs. While for many Jews their initial sense of wrathful indignation gave way to more pensive bitterness, the Gush have seized on the episode to castigate the government for alleged “appeasement” of the Arabs and to demand “iron-fisted” measures against the latter.

They are pressing their demands for access to the Ohel Avraham synagogue and for total Jewish control of the Machpela Cave where Jews and Moslems are permitted to worship at different times. The Gush now insist that the cave be closed to Moslem worshippers until after the Succoth festival after which the government should review the entire matter of dual prayer rights.

DESCRIBED AS A ‘REAL POGROM’

Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Raphael of the National Religious Party, visited the cave after Yom Kippur. He described the desecration as “a real pogrom.” He said later on a radio interview that if there had been Jewish acts of “foolhardiness” they didn’t compare to what he called a deliberate, premeditated Arab attack motivated by hatred.

Liberal opinion was equally predictable. “Doves” linked the vandalism to “incitement” by Levinger and his followers. The independent newspaper Haaretz sharply criticized the government today for “appeasement” of Levinger and his followers and accused the government of a “flabby” stance toward the militant Orthodox group.

The Likud opposition bloc, which supports the Gush, has called the Knesset into special session tomorrow to debate the Hebron violence. The Cabinet is scheduled to meet on the matter before the Knesset convenes. Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who was at Hebron yesterday in an unusually grim mood, met today with Welfare Minister Zevulun Hammer of the NRP’s “young guard.” Hammer is close to the Gush and to the Kiryat Arba residents. Peres apparently is trying to enlist his support to cool tempers.

Security sources said today that no changes were planned at present in the prayer procedures at Hebron. At any rate, changes would have to be decided on the Cabinet level, not by the Military Government.

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