SETTLING ERETZ ISRAEL -- 'A DIVINE COMMANDMENT'?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Kiryat Arba, Israeli-occupied West Bank Shoshana Mageni believes that God gave her this land. ''This is Eretz Israel, where the Jewish people were born, where our father Abraham is buried,'' she says. ''Settling this land is a mitzvot - a divine commandment.''

Ms. Mageni belongs to Gush Emunim - ''the bloc of the faithful.'' Motivated by unshakable religious beliefs, Mageni and other Gush settlers have spearheaded the effort to make the West Bank Jewish.

Much of their energy has been focused in this satellite city of apartment houses near Hebron, which is considered holy by Jews as well as Muslims.

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Most religious Israelis are not Gush militants. Janet Aviodad, a specialist in Jewish Orthodoxy, estimates that the Gush's membership and sympathizers total only about 50,000, about half of whom now live on the West Bank. Moreover, she says the recent uncovering of an alleged Jewish terrorist cell - many members of which are from the Gush - has split the group.

''They're on the defensive, quarreling among themselves,'' Ms. Aviodad says.

Some religious Israelis actively oppose the Gush. Avi Ravitzky, who started a religious equivalent to Peace Now called Nitivot Shalom (''Paths to Peace''), says, ''These people are twisting my faith; they're saying the most important thing in Judaism is land, more important even than human life.''

But for many religious Jews, the Bible is seen as providing justification for their attachment to the occupied territories. In Shoshana Mageni's opinion, the Bible tells her that the founding of Israel in 1948 was the first step toward the realization of God's will on Earth. The second step has been the return of Jews to Hebron. The third would be the formation of a true Jewish state, not based on Western democracy, but on Jewish law.

She says this calmly, rationally. A university graduate, she breaks out of the stereotypical image of a fundamentalist unable to handle the modern world. She says she rejected Western values after finding them empty.

She has the courage of her convictions. She has given up almost all creature comforts to settle in a cramped apartment here.

''The Arabs can stay,'' she says. ''They would merely have to accept Jewish jurisdiction and stop throwing stones. They could be resident aliens.''

Her rock-hard certainty cracks only once - when talk turns to the arrest of the Jews charged with terrorist acts against Arabs. Several of those in custody came from Kiryat Arba.

''Have you ever heard of Amalek?'' she asks. (In the Bible, God is quoted by Samuel as saying that Saul should smite and kill all the people of Amalek, archenemies of the Israelites.)

''Are the Arabs Amalek?'' She pauses. ''I don't think so, most of us don't think so.'' Another pause. ''But we're debating it.''

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