In Crossfire of Mideast Conflict, Samaritans Look for a Future

Torn between two sides of Arab-Israeli dispute, they hope a map redrawn in peace won't leave their tiny community again divided.

When Israel withdrew from this city of 130,000 two years ago, few Palestinians had any qualms about seeing the "occupation army" go.

Except for about 300 nonPalestinian residents who had developed good relations with the Israelis: the Samaritans.

During the three decades of Israeli rule, the Samaritans had enjoyed special status as intermediaries between Israeli authorities and Palestinians. Some welcomed the Israelis like long-lost cousins. Most of all, for the Samaritans, Israel's conquest of the West Bank in 1967 meant one important thing: being reunited with an equally tiny community of Samaritan relatives in the Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv.

Since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the two parts of the community had been cut off from each other. Jordanian authorities - who then controlled the West Bank - allowed the Holon Samaritans to come to Nablus only once a year for special Passover rites on Mt. Gerizim, the Samaritan holy place.

Now, while Samaritans welcome efforts toward Arab-Israeli reconciliation, they fear for their future under a final peace settlement. When borders are eventually drawn between Israel and a Palestinian state, the Samaritans worry they will be separated by a border that will once again cut one half of the 611-member community off from the other.

"We don't want a return to those days," says Benjamim Tsedaka, a leader of the Samaritans in Holon. While growing up, he remembers being barred from visiting his Nablus family and the holy mountain during the rest of the year, other than at Passover, and some years completely. Nowadays, he makes the hour-long drive several times a week to visit and to deliver the Samaritan newspaper he founded and edits.

"The main point is freedom of access to the mountain in any situation," says Mr. Tsedaka, whose faith holds that the all-important binding of Isaac by Abraham happened on Mt. Gerizim near Nablus, not on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Given special status

In an attempt to prevent the two Samaritan communities from being separated by checkpoints and changing political sands, Israel agreed to provide all of the Nablus Samaritans with Israeli passports two years ago. That allowed them to travel freely to Israel, which most Palestinians without special working papers have not been able to do since the 1993 Oslo accords were signed.

But the Samaritan acceptance of Israeli documents angered some local Palestinians, who saw this as a form of identification with the Israelis - a taboo of which Muslim residents have long been suspicious.

The Samaritans had received some assistance and privileges from the Israelis, who set up a modern Hebrew study center for them. Then, a year after the 1987 outbreak of the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, the Samaritans sought a neutral refuge from the violence and moved from Nablus to secluded Mt. Gerizim on the outskirts of town.

That has sometimes put them on the fringe of Palestinian society. "The Arabs tell us all the time that 'you are Jews,' but we try to explain that we are part of the children of Israel, from two of the 12 tribes," says Farouk Raja Samari, the secretary of the Nablus Samaritans.

Since the Palestinian Authority took over in Nablus, President Yasser Arafat has been trying to show that he can be more magnanimous to the Samaritans than the Israelis were. He appointed a Samaritan to the 88-seat legislative council - an otherwise popularly elected body - a generous gift considering that a tiny fraction of 1 percent of voters are Samaritan.

That impressed Yusef Abu Al-Hasan Jacob Cohen, the highest priest of the Samaritans. "Arafat is the first person to ever dedicate a special seat in his parliament for us," says Mr. Cohen, dressed in his regal, embroidered robe. He thinks Mr. Arafat's goodwill should come as no surprise. "We are part of the Palestinian people. We have lived in Nablus for a long time."

Other Samaritans think Arafat is just cultivating them for his own political advantage. If he is good to them, he can argue there is no reason the 150,000 Israelis living in controversial West Bank settlements can't live under Palestinian rule in the future.

"This is a kind of PR for Arafat," says Tsedaka. "He will say, 'Why can't the settlers live under our authority? See how well we treat the Samaritans.' "

And as for being Palestinian, that doesn't exactly apply to Tsedaka, even though he was born in Nablus and goes by "Amin" when he's there. (All Samaritans have a Jewish and an Arab name.) For most of his life he worked for the Jewish Agency - a quasigovernmental Zionist organization in charge of bringing new immigrants to Israel.

He also married an Israeli Jew, a once-prohibited marriage that has become increasingly common due to the 5 to 3 male-to-female ratio in the Samaritan community. In language and lifestyle, he is comfortably Israeli.

Neither Arabs nor Jews

In reality, the Samaritan identity is extremely complex. Neither Arab nor Jew, they essentially function as both. In Holon, they have a special neighborhood, but otherwise live and work among Israelis, attending their schools and serving in the army.

But in Nablus, they are seen as an important part of the community's history, and are treated as a sort of protected minority. In a way, they are a source of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation: A massive Israeli archaeological excavation on the top of Mt. Gerizim employs Samaritans and Arabs.

And in some respects, those in Holon are quite different from their brethren on the mountaintop. Though they put a high priority on unity - leaving can result in excommunication - Samaritans living in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area come under different influences from those in Nablus, a conservative Muslim city.

Secular Tel Aviv life has had an effect on youths. Jacob Cohen, a young man in Holon who happens to share the priest's name, sees himself as part of Israeli society. With limited marriage prospects within the Samaritan community, he thinks he'll probably marry an Israeli Jew willing to join the Samaritan faith.

"Sometimes the men must wait until the girls grow up," he says, because the number of marriageable Samaritan girls is so small. "We live like Israelis. We go to discothques and pubs. Religion is at home, otherwise we live normal lives."

Despite so many young Samaritan men choosing Jewish wives, leaders say the rate of people leaving the community is no higher than 3 percent. Down to just 146 members in 1917 - much of the decrease was caused by forced conversions over the years - the community sees itself as growing at a healthy rate now.

Rather, one of the biggest upsets for the community is the theft of two Torah scrolls from their Nablus synagogue two years ago. The 700- and 400-year-old manuscripts are being held for $1 million ransom in Jordan, the Samaritans say, probably stolen with the help of a local Palestinian who knew their worth to the community.

Arafat has promised to try to get them back, but so far there has been no progress and the Samaritans have all but stopped using their downtown Nablus synagogue.

"I am ashamed that during my time as priest these books have been lost and I am starting to lose faith that they will be returned," says Cohen. "It is a tragedy for the Samaritan community."

But the Samaritans are putting their top priority on keeping their community whole and, as Tsedaka puts it, "walking between the raindrops" of Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian politics.

"The goal is not to get wet. The Samaritan policy today is not to be involved in anybody's politics, to keep out of the argument," says Tsedaka, who frequently travels abroad to try to ensure that his people will be taken into account in a final accord.

With a palpable sense of vulnerability that comes from being so small in number, they fear they will be forced to take either Israeli or Palestinian citizenship only, or that a future Palestinian regime would be less tolerant of them.

"We don't know what will be tomorrow," he says, "so we have to live in peace with everybody."

* Samaritans: Name of a people who lived in ancient Samaria; descendants of ancient Israelites who broke from Jerusalem-centered Judaism some 2,200 years ago and now number several hundred; word used to describe those who do good deeds, based on Jesus' good Samaritan parable.

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