JERUSALEM (Jan. 16)
The government appears about to revive a controversial plan to expand the Jewish quarter in Hebron. It is strongly supported by Jewish settlers and their advocates in the Knesset and government. But some Likud MKs have expressed reservations over the cost at a time of economic retrenchment, and possible political repercussions.
Nevertheless, a discussion of the plan at the top level of government was scheduled for today. It was postponed only because Premier Yitzhak Shamir and other senior ministers were attending the funeral of Maj. Saad Haddad, the Christian militia leader in south Lebanon who died Saturday.
The government approved the plan in principle in 1981. It calls for enlargement of the existing Jewish enclave around the Abraham Abinu Synagogue in the heart of Hebron to embrace the entire area of what is now the Arab market-place. The market would be relocated and vendors compensated at a cost, estimated by the Defense Ministry, of about $1.6 million. This does not include rebuilding the Jewish quarter itself.
The market stands on land that was once the Jewish quarter of Hebron, razed by the Jordanian administration in 1950. It is therefore Jewish-owned, most of it property of the Habad Hasidic movement. Other parcels belong to individuals, some of whom cannot be traced. That land is in the hands of the custodian of absentee owners’ property.
Although Jewish settlers are seeking to raise money from their supporters abroad, the bulk of the project’s cost would be borne by the Treasury. Likud MK Meir Shitrift, a member of the Knesset Finance Committee, argued today that the time is not ripe for pouring large sums of money into the Hebron when there are great social needs throughout the country. Pro-settlement militants promptly denounced him.
PART OF A BROADER DEBATE
The controversy over the Hebron project is part of a broader debate on a proposed freeze of settlement acitvity on the West Bank for economic reasons. A bill to that effect is expected to be presented in the Knesset today by Likud MKs Dror Seigerman and Yitzhak Berman.
Shamir said last week that there would be no settlement freeze but that settlement activity must be included in the broad budget cuts proposed by the Ministerial Economic Committee. Representatives of the settlers were due to meet today with Shamir and Finance Minister Yigal Cohen-Orgad to discuss the proposed cuts.
The settlers claim that the proposals represent 25 percent of the budget for settlements which is a larger reduction than in any other area of government expenditures. The establishment of 12 new settlements would have to be postponed, they say.
There is also a political dimension. The U. S. is on record as urging the Israel government to freeze settlement activity as a way of advancing the peace process. There seems to be growing sentiment for a freeze in Israel. A recent poll showed that for the first time, a majority of the public favored a freeze. The issue could come to a head in Hebron.
Although Jewish settlers claim most Arab vendors are willing to be relocated, government expropriation of the market place is almost certain to stir political protests in a town of 70,000 Arabs.