Hebron: at the heart of the storm

The diplomats talk about possible phases of Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, perhaps by stages, under various theoretical contingencies. Washington still talks about the possibility of reviving President Reagan's diplomatic initiative of last September. The US secretary of state talks to the President of Syria - to no avail.

But the real issue is being fought out in the narrow streets of a very ancient city where the latest victim in a struggle between Jews and Arabs for the West Bank of Palestine happened to be a young 18-year-old Jewish theological student from Staten Island, New York.

He had come out of a building which until two years ago had been an Arab school. It was taken over by Israeli soldiers and is now a Hebrew theological seminary. A colleague was with him. They were waiting for a bus to take them back to the great fortress-like Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba which rises from a hilltop outside of Hebron like a Norman castle looming over some Anglo-Saxon settlement in the early years after the Norman Conquest.

Aharon Gross and his companion were both carrying automatic weapons - both usual and necessary for Jews from Kiryat Arba going into the heart of an Arab city of some 70,000 persons. The companion stepped aside for a moment. Aharon was alone. A car passed him. Arabs jumped out, stabbed him, and fled. He did not survive.

That night israeli troops watched while a vigilante group from Kiryat Arba ransacked the central Arab market next to the former Arab school, burning several Arab buildings and trashing vendors' stands. The next day the Arab mayor of Hebron was dismissed and replaced by an Israeli military officer. That leaves Bethlehem as the only Arab city on the West Bank to be still under its elected Arab mayor.

But the story did not begin last week with the death of Aharon Gross.

It began long ago.

Hebron is an ancient city. It was a Canaanite royal city when Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan and took first Jericho and then whatever else they could take in Palestine. Hebron was one city they conquered. It was Jewish at the time of King David, who was crowned in Hebron and ruled the Israelites from there for 71/2 years before he captured Jerusalem.

The Muslims took Hebron in AD 635. It was a predominantly Muslim city from then down to these days. But during the long Muslim years from 635 to 1929 a small Jewish community survived in the center of the city, where the marketplace is today and where Aharon Gross from Staten Island lost his life last week.

In 1929 Arab unrest against increasing Jewish migration into Palestine (under the British mandate and the Balfour declaration) burst forth in fierce rioting all over Palestine. The British had to bring troops in from Cairo and as far as Malta to quell the riots. During those riots 67 Jews were killed in Hebron alone. Most surviving Jews left then. The last left in 1936 when another wave of Arab riots began.

There were no Jews in Hebron from 1936 down to 1967 when Israel conquered the West Bank. In the following year a small group of Jews of the Gush Emunim sect established themselves on a hilltop outside Hebron alongside an Israeli military post. The Gush Emunim are followers of Rabbi Moshe Levinger who preaches the expulsion of all Arabs from the occupied territories.

Since 1968 that small settlement has grown into the most formidable Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and from it Jewish vigilante groups have sortied from time to time, cutting down Arab vineyards, roaming through Hebron threatening Arabs, and being the base from which a determined and continuing effort has been launched to reestablish a Jewish community inside the city.

On May 2 of 1980 a force of some 100 young Jews sortied into the center of the city toward what had been the Jewish quarter before 1929. Arabs opened fire from the rooftops, killing six and wounding seven. One of the six had been convicted the year before of breaking into Arab houses, beating residents, smashing furniture, and telling the Arabs to get out of Hebron. He died with eight bullets in his back.

The Israeli government has been considering a plan to reclaim all property in Hebron which belonged to Jews before 1929 and turn it into a Jewish quarter for 500 Jewish families in the center of Hebron. The project has been held up in the law courts until now. One faction in the cabinet is in favor of activating the plan at once. The Arabs of Hebron are restless.

Several bombings, removal of a power line to Hebron, and the wounding of a four-year-old Arab child preceded last week's event. If the Jews force their way into the center of Hebron, permanently, will they do the same in all the other Arab cities in the occupied territories? That is what makes the Arabs restless, and creates the atmosphere in which Aharon Gross went down.

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