To their opponents, they are religious fanatics bent on destroying the peace process.
To their supporters, they are brave pioneers who would rather die than forsake their claim to Eretz Yisrael.
In reality, the Jews of Hebron defy such tidy definitions. Comprised of 48 families and 150 yeshiva students, the community. and the issues surrounding it, are far from black and white.
Historically, both Jews and Arabs have a claim to Hebron, where, more than 3,000 years ago, the patriarch Abraham is said to have purchased a burial cave for his wife Sarah. According to tradition, Abraham himself is buried in the Machpela Cave, or Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Until the 1920s, Jewish and Arab residents of the city maintained an uneasy coexistence. Tensions between the two communities peaked in 1929, when Arabs massacred 69 Jews. The last Jews were forced out of Hebron following a riot in 1936.
In 1968, a year after Israel gained control of the West Bank, a small group of Jews returned to Hebron. In 1970, the government offered them a building site on the outskirts of the city, which later became the settlement of Kiryat Arba. In 1980, another group of Jews settled in Beit Hadassah, a former hospital in the heart of Hebron. They have remained there ever since.
Since Feb. 25, the day Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from Kiryat Arba, murdered 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque, the Jewish settlers of Hebron have been at the center of a huge storm of controversy that shows no signs of subsiding.
In the wake of the massacre, the settlers have found themselves under intense scrutiny– not only by the Palestinians but by their fellow Israelis.
For a solid month, the massacre and its fallout have dominated both the headlines and editorial pages of the daily newspapers. As radio and television broadcast live coverage of the Shamgar Commission’s hearings into the massacre, op-ed writers continue to argue for and against the settlers’ right to bear arms and about whether the government should evict them from Hebron.
While the political debate rages in the halls of the Knesset and on the newspapers’ op-ed pages, the Jewish settlers of Hebron say they will not budge.
Recognizing that public opinion within Israel could ultimately decide their fate, the settlers have embarked on a public relations campaign that, they hope, will build sympathy for their cause.
They concede that they have an “image problem “and have appointed two spokespersons, one a native English speaker, to coordinate visits by the local and foreign press. Despite this, a major American magazine recently featured a gutting settler family on the cover, under the title “Armed and Dangerous.”
According to the settlers, hundreds of journalists and photographers have visited Beit Hadassah and the Avraham Aveinu complex, where most of the Jews of Hebron reside.
AN ARMED CAMP
Despite the warm welcome that guests receive, there is no hiding the fact that the settlement is more an armed camp than a neighborhood.
Getting there at all is a complicated affair. Only those with shatterproof glass would dare drive their cars past Bethlehem, so most catch a bus from Jerusalem to Kiryat Arba. Once there, two jeeps filled with soldiers lead the bus through the winding roads of Hebron, often getting stoned along the way. Every Jew who wishes to enter or leave Hebron does so in an armed convoy.
Seemingly used to the danger, 30 schoolchildren who commute daily to school in Kiryat Arba barely blinked an eye when the bus they were traveling in was stoned. The two journalists seated among the children were not nearly as calm.
Askcd about the stones, the convoys and the soldiers patrolling the streets and rooftops, Hebron resident Ruti Hismi said, “We’re feeling more tension than usual, but this isn’t new, after all.
“At the beginning of the intifada six years ago, the situation was terrible,” she recalled. “Icouldn’t drive my car a few meters without getting stoned. It was worse then than it is today, because we didn’t have shatterproof glass.My windshield was broken several times.”
Though relations between Jews and Arabs in Hebron have never been optimal, “things were a lot quieter in the year before the signing of the peace accord” last September said Hismi, a mother of six. After the Israeli-Palestinian signing ceremony in Washington, ” the tension grew, and the roads became more dangerous,” she said.
‘NOT EASY TO LIVE HERE’
“It’s not easy to live here,” agreed Elisheva Federman, 22, whose husband, Noam, the spokesman of the outlawed, anti-Arab Kach movement, had been arrested the previous week.
“There are no services in Hebron,” she said.”The children must travel to Kiryat Arba for schooling. There is no hospital or clinic, no post office or bank.”
Anticipating the question she has been asked many times before, she continued, “My husband and I feel that Hebron is an important place for Jews to live, despite the hardships. It’s more important to live here than to have a comfortable life. We feel very deeply connected to Hebron; it is the home of the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation.”
Federman defended her husband’s innocence and said that his arrest was based “purely on political motives. It’s easy.” she asserted, “to say that Kach is a terrorist organization, but the government can’t prove it. I’m glad to see that the government is using such a desperate act,” she said, “because it means they are unsure of themselves.”
Though she is not a member of Kach, Shani Horowitz, an American-born Israeli who has lived in Hebron for a dozen years, asserted that Noam Federman and other Kach Ieaders “were arrested without cause. They were arrested to give a prize to (Yasser) Arafat,” she said, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization leader.
Horowitz, a nursery school teacher with six children of her own, said that forcing the Jews to leave Hebron would create a precedent.
“Today they’re talking about giving back Hebron, Tomorrow it could be the Western Wall,” she said. Referring to Arab rioting within Israel proper following the Hebron massacre, Horowitz said, “The Arabs have shown us that the intifada isn’t just in Judea and Samaria,” as settlers refer to the West Bank.
“The question isn’t Hebron — it’s the Jewish state,” she said. “I’m not willing to give up one piece of it.”
Like many of her fellow residents, Horowitz refused to discuss the deeds of Baruch Goldstein, who was the community’s physician.
“I don’t want to go into it,” she said. “We had a lot of positive experiences with Baruch Goldstein.” After a pause, she added:” You have to remember that Goldstein didn’t live in Hebron. There is no reason we should be punished for what he did.”
Hismi believes that Goldstein “simply cracked” under the strain of treating terror victims. “He was going through a terrible time,” she explained. “He was the first person to arrive at any incident. He saved so many innocent people, and many died in his arms.”