Coping with Israeli occupation - a tale of two West Bank cities

Nowhere in the occupied territories is the confrontration between Jews and Palestinians so direct or brutal as in Hebron. This is a deeply traditional Muslim town, home to 35,000 Palestinians and the main market for many neighboring villages.

Since 1968, when Rabbi Moshe Levinger and some of his followers checked into a Hebron hotel to celebrate Passover and then refused to leave the city, it has also become home to 850 members of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a militant Jewish settler movement.

In Hebron, the nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute crystallizes. It is a clash between two peoples over one land and over sites that each considers holy to its faith.

Hebron is mentioned in the Bible in the book of Genesis as the first city in Canaan where a Hebrew, the patriarch Abraham, bought property. Abraham also is revered by Muslims. ``And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan'' (Genesis 23:19).

That biblical reference forms the cornerstone of a Jewish claim to Hebron that Gush Emunim is determined to reassert with the help of Israel's Army in Hebron.

Today, a structure built on top of what is believed to be the Cave of the Machpelah is the one place where Jews and Muslims worship side by side. Until 1967, the structure was used exclusively as a mosque. After Israel's occupation of the West Bank in the 1967 war, Jewish settlers pressured the military government into reserving part of the structure at certain hours for Jewish worship.

Soldiers keep a high profile both inside and outside the building. They warily watch passers-by as they guard busloads of tourists. A Palestinian woman last year leaped on the back of an Israeli soldier guarding the site and slit his throat. He survived the attack, but his partner shot the woman dead.

Relations between Jews and Palestinians in this ancient town are fraught with bitterness and hatred, and many have died in the years since the settlers moved here. Throughout Hebron, each community has scattered monuments to its members killed in clashes with the other side.

In a Muslim cemetery in Hebron, a gravestone marks the site where Samir Abdo lies. ``The martyr of Kfar Etzion,'' says the simple inscription. In the war between Jews and Arabs that broke out with Israel's creation in 1948, the battle of Kfar Etzion was one of the few that Arab forces won.

Only a few hundred yards from Samir Abdo's memorial is a monument built in a traffic circle to a Jewish theological student murdered by Palestinian attackers in July 1983. The inscription on this monument reads: ``Asher Aharon Gross, an oleh [immigrant] from America and a resident of Jerusalem, was a student in Yeshiva Shavei Hebron. He was 18 years old when he was brutally murdered by terrorists as he stood on this square ... May God revenge his blood.''

Confrontation, national pride, revenge, and blood are the themes of modern Hebron.

``The settlers came in 1978 to some buildings which belonged to the Jews before 1929,'' says deposed Hebron mayor Mostafa Natsheh. ``But the property that belonged to Jews is limited. The goal of the settlers is to have a majority in the city.''

Mr. Natsheh worries that the ultimate aim is to force as many Palestinian merchants and families from the center of Hebron as possible, to allow the settlement there to expand. The growing settlement, he says, is putting ever greater pressure on local merchants to move out.

Ratab Saloun is one merchant who feels the pressure acutely. Each work day, he arrives at the cabinet shop his grandfather opened in the heart of Hebron 60 years ago and feels as though he just stepped into prison.

Mr. Saloun and his fellow merchants have the misfortune to own shops underneath Beit Hadassah, one of several buildings reclaimed by Gush Emunim.

The settlers complained to the Israeli Army that the presence of Arab shops beneath Beit Hadassah was a security risk to the settlers who live and work in the building above. The Army took action.

Today, a few feet in front of Saloun's shop and stretching for several hundred feet on either side is a giant chain-link fence reinforced by neatly spaced oil drums filled with rock. The only way for passers-by in the busy Arab casbah to enter either Saloun's shop or the other half-dozen shops blocked by the fence is through an entrance guarded by armed Israeli soldiers. The soldiers search bags and purses before letting customers through.

Since the fence went up 1 years ago, Saloun says, business has been dismal.

``In the past, Saturday used to be the best day of the week,'' he says gloomily. ``Today, I got a profit of 12 shekels [about $9]. The Israelis put up the fence for `security reasons.' They said someone could put a bomb in here. We said we can watch over our stores better than any Israeli Army reservist can do it.''

Saloun and the other merchants were offered compensation for their shops but refused to accept it. Instead, they appealed the decision to put up the fence to the Israeli Supreme Court. They lost the case.

Saloun insists he will carry on. ``It is inconceivable to leave the shop,'' he says. ``Our religion doesn't allow us to sell to the Jews and move. I'll die in my store if I have to.''

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