Hebron settlers sit tight and worry

As the U.S. increases pressure on Israel to dismantle settlements, Hebron residents wonder who they can turn to. By Matt Beynon Rees - GlobalPost

HEBRON, West Bank — He’s stayed in the largest town in the West Bank for 36 years, even though most of its 167,000 residents want him to leave. He’s just won a $50,000 prize for his “Zionist activities” there. His country’s new government is vilified around the world because it’s seen as supportive of people just like him.

You’d think Noam Arnon would be feeling a lot more secure than he is.

But the 54-year-old leader of Hebron’s 700 Israeli settlers is worried that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t stand up to a new U.S. administration that promises to be tougher on Israel’s continued construction on occupied land.

“I know that we can’t trust him,” Arnon says, as he enters the ancient Cave of the Patriarchs, burial place of the biblical couples Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. “[Netanyahu] is not a strong man. He’s very weak. Under pressure he collapses very fast.”

It’s commonplace among diplomats and foreign correspondents to refer to Arnon as “crazy.” After all, he’s bringing up his eight children in a hostile city whose municipality is run by Hamas. But the tag comes mainly from his opposition to the idea that Israelis ought to leave their settlements in return for peace. If the 282,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank are generally seen as an obstruction in peace talks, the residents of the Jewish Quarter of Hebron are viewed as violent extremists reveling in the hatred that surrounds them.

Arnon, of course, doesn’t see it that way, and he’s not the only one. In a few weeks he’ll receive the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism awarded by Irving Moskowitz, a Florida resident mainly known for his support for controversial attempts by Israeli nationalists to plant colonies in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. One reason Moskowitz decided to give the award to a Hebron settler was in recognition of the anniversary of a massacre of Jews in the city by Palestinians 80 years ago. It was followed by the expulsion of the Jewish residents, who only returned in the 1970s.

Until the massacre of 1929, as Arnon likes to point out, Jews had lived in Hebron since Abraham arrived 4,000 years ago. The patriarch bought the cave over which King Herod built the existing massive edifice at the time of Christ in the same style as his Great Temple in Jerusalem. (“Herod,” says Arnon, “was a complicated personality, but he knew how to build.” Which is what many people say about Moskowitz.)

The memory of the massacre, like the hostility of Hebron’s Arabs, only serves to strengthen Arnon’s determination to stay in the dusty, deserted quarter of the town where Israelis are permitted to reside. I walked with Arnon through the once-bustling market area between the Cave of the Patriarchs and the 120-year-old Hadassah building in which he lives. The Arab shops have been shuttered for five years for the security of Arnon and the other settlers.

“Don’t blame me for these shops being closed,” he says. “Blame the terrorists.”

Six paratroopers swap their red berets for helmets as we pass. They go single file into a narrow alley in the casbah, built in the time of Turkish rule. As they step out of sight, each one locks and loads his M-16 and takes a deep breath as though diving into water.

The edgy soldiers are patrolling the dividing line between Israeli-controlled Hebron and the part of the town handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1997. Arnon needs no reminding who was prime minister when the bulk of his town was given to people he considers terrorists: Netanyahu.

The new Israeli prime minister visits Washington next week. The Obama administration has been trying to weaken his opposition to an independent Palestinian state and restrictions on Israeli construction in the settlements.

Last week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told a pro-Israel lobbying group that Israel ought to “not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement."

Combine that pressure with Netanyahu’s pullout from much of Hebron a decade ago and you see why Arnon has some doubts about his community’s future. To those who say Netanyahu is deeply right-wing and couldn’t possibly evacuate settlements, Arnon points out that it was the fiercely nationalistic Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who forced almost 10,000 settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip settlements in 2005.

When Arnon and I sit with the mayor of Kiryat Arba, the 7,000-person settlement that abuts Hebron, he’s deeply skeptical of Malachi Levinger’s hope to build 2,000 new homes there over the next decade.

“This is very optimistic,” Arnon says.

“If the government won’t help us, God will help us,” says Levinger, whose rabbi father was the founder of the settlement in Hebron.

Levinger says that during the February election campaign, Netanyahu promised him that construction would go ahead full steam in the settlements. “Also after the election, [Netanyahu] said we’d move ahead with building,” he says.

Asked if the prime minister had actually told him since the election that new building permits would be issued, Levinger backs off. “No, but I’ve been told this in conversations with ministers,” he says. “They’ve told me.”

Arnon shakes his head.

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