BEHIND THE HEADLINES Hebron’s Jews grieve alone after Israel redeploys troops

HEBRON, Jan. 21 (JTA) — They looked like a family in mourning, albeit a large family. Several hundred Jewish settlers had come to the ceremony to express a kind of tribal grief that many outsiders fail to share or understand. They came to Hebron on Monday night in buses that traveled through dark, empty roads, escorted by army jeeps. Four days after the Israeli army redeployed from most of Hebron, local residents felt the need to lament “the pain of the city.” On a stage adjacent to the eastern wall of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, speeches were given under a pouring rain. Among the speakers was Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the founding father of the modern Jewish settlement in Hebron, established after the 1967 Six-Day War. As he spoke, firecrackers exploded in a nearby Arab neighborhood. Children were celebrating the end of Israeli rule in 80 percent of the city. For the settlers, the firecrackers were a loud, unpleasant reminder of the new reality. The settlers had come to mourn the transfer of most of the city to Arab hands. They knew that the majority of Israeli society did not grieve with them. “It is from our sorrow that we derive the yearning to build Hebron and Eretz Yisrael,” said Dov Lior, rabbi of the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. “We will build Hebron out of the sorrow.” For the settlers, the transfer of control in Hebron represented nothing less than a betrayal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man they had voted for in the belief that he would never abandon the dream of a Greater Israel. But last week, rather than halt or perhaps even reverse the previous Labor government’s transfer of Palestinian population centers in the West Bank to self-rule, Netanyahu agreed at a summit with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to take the long-delayed step in Hebron. Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi, leader of the far-right Moledet Party, spoke in political terms. “A government comes, a government goes,” Ze’evi said. “A Jewish government can also pass away, if it acts against the interests of the State of Israel.” “Just as we have brought this government to power, we may topple it,” he added. The climax of the brief ceremony was the “keriah,” the traditional rending of clothing at a time of mourning. At Lior’s prompting, the men in the crowd pulled out scissors and small knives and tore their shirts. Levinger then offered a few words, saying that he could not bear the “nonsense” about Israeli acceptance of an eventual Palestinian state, an idea floated in recent days by some Likud leaders — including Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan and, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, by Netanyahu himself. Then the crowd dispersed. The buses pulled out of the well-guarded parking lot near the tomb and the local residents returned home to what was for them a highly unpleasant reality. “Our biggest disappointment is Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who made the agreement with the Palestinians, the man we had all voted for,” said Moshe Ben-Zimra, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Hebron. But there was little outward evidence of the deep frustrations in Hebron’s Jewish Quarter. The area around the quarter is separated from the rest of Hebron by roadblocks that no Arab dares cross, unless he or she has specific — and authorized — business inside the quarter. A large number of soldiers patrol the area separating the Jewish and Arab sections of the volatile city, intent on preventing acts of violence by one side or the other. Traffic on Shuhada Street, which runs past a number of settlements in the Jewish Quarter, is restricted to authorized vehicles and there are few that pass through. At the western end of the street stand Palestinian police officers with green, black and red berets, guarding the entrance into the Arab area. As a group of visitors arrived at the Palestinian roadblock, a plainclothes officer asked firmly, with the voice of someone who has just acquired a new dimension of authority: “Where to?” Members of the group identified themselves as journalists. “Journalists, OK,” he said. Other Jews are not welcome here. Certainly not Hebron Jews. Only days earlier, Jibril Rajoub, who is in charge of all Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, described the Hebron settlers as a “brick on Palestinian chests” that needed to be removed. He softened his comments in subsequent days, but there are many who echo his original sentiments. “I want to tell the settlers they better behave,” said Abdul Hai Sider, a garage owner. “Because if God forbid they do something — they know very well what we can do to them.” “And if Hebron explodes,” added Ramzi Abu-Awn, a Palestinian police officer, “everything will explode, including Haifa and Tel Aviv.” This from a police officer, stationed in Hebron to prevent Palestinian militants from stirring up trouble.

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