More settlers: answer to Hebron killing?
Hebron, Israeli-occupied West Bank
The death of Aharon Gross, a young, bespectacled Israeli seminary student, at the hands of Arab assailants in the center of ancient Hebron, and the Jewish rioting which followed have raised basic questions about Israel's continued rule of the largely Palestinian-populated West Bank:Skip to next paragraph
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* Can violence between local Arabs and Jewish settlers on the West Bank be avoided?
* Will increased Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab cities like Hebron inflame or calm such violence?
* Can Israeli authorities who dismissed Hebron's Arab mayor and council following the murder enforce the law impartially upon Jews and Arabs in the West Bank and how committed are they to trying?
The brutal and still confusing circumstances of Mr. Gross's death on July 7 highlight the tension between Jewish and Arab residents of the West Bank, which is felt most intensely inside Hebron.
According to his mother, Yehudit, Aharon was a studious 18-year-old who emigrated with his parents from Staten Island, N.Y., in 1974. He had chosen the Shovei Hebron Yeshiva (seminary) in Hebron not out of ideological devotion to Jewish settlement on the West Bank, but because he admired the rabbi (spiritual leader) who headed it.
But the Yeshiva's locale in a building Israelis call Beit Romano, after the Jewish Romano family of Turkish origins which built it 120 years ago, plunged him into the center of controversy.
Beit Romano - a dilapidated three-story building with high arched ceilings set in a courtyard guarded by Israeli soldiers - was, until two years ago, used by Hebron Arabs as a local school. It sits in the heart of downtown Hebron next to the bus station. It flanks the old Arab market, or casbah.
It is minutes away from the source of Hebron's holiness to both Jews and Arabs, the cave of Machtela, the traditional burial place of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The cave now sits under a massive mosque in which a Jewish synagogue also functions.
Tragedy has been the spur for settler attempts to rebuild the ancient Jewish quarter in Hebron, an extremely conservative Arab town of 70,000 people. Abandoned after bloody anti-Jewish riots in 1929 and 1936, the small quarter stands in the heart of Hebron's business and market district. In 1980, a determined band of Jewish women settlers and their children from the Kiryat Arba Jewish suburb above Hebron squatted in a stone building on the edge of the one-time Jewish quarter. The quarter, which they called Beit Hadassah, is alleged to have been owned by Jews before 1929. (Illegal squatting is also the means by which Kiryat Arba was founded.)
At first the government of Prime Minster Menachem Begin denounced the squatters. But moving them out was too politically explosive for a government committed to massive Jewish settlement on the West Bank.
The massacre by Palestinian gunmen of six Kiryat Arba settlers in front of Beit Hadassah in May 1980 led both to the deportation of the then Hebron mayor and to a government decision to sanction settlement in downtown Hebron. Subsequent nonfatal attacks on Jews were answered by government permission for settlers to move into Beit Romano and some abandoned buildings just behind the Hebron Arab produce market.
But future expansion of this area was limited by an Israeli supreme court order, upon petition of Hebron's acting mayor, Mustafa Natche. It was a move that infuriated Hebron's Jewish settlers. At present there are only 20 Jewish families and 15 to 20 young male seminary students living in Hebron, along with 4,500 Jewish settlers in Kiryat Arba.
Jewish-Arab tensions have been rising in Hebron for several weeks. Settlers are angry at rock throwing by Arab children at Israeli vehicles. They have charged the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with inadequate protection of their security.
Several vigilante groups recently claimed responsibility for burning two Arab buses in revenge and for uprooting Hebron electricity pylons, which they claim were on Kiryat Arba land. This spring shots were fired into an Arab home below Kiryat Arba, wounding a four-year-old Arab girl, and a bomb went off outside a mosque near the Hebron produce market. In mid-June a grenade was tossed at Beit Romano.
On the day of Aharon Gross's death, an American-born settler from Kiryat Arba was sentenced by an Israeli court to 39 months in jail for firing at an Arab car near Hebron, the longest sentence ever for a Jewish vigilante.