In the heart of ancient Hebron, second-largest Arab town on the occupied West Bank, is a dilapidated three-story building crowded with 70 Jewish women and children. It has become a symbol of deteriorating relations between West Bank Palestinians and Israelis during the past year.
On May 2, 1980, six young Israeli student-settlers from the nearby Jewish settlement of Kyriat Arba were murdered by Palestinian gunmen as they approached this building. Their deaths signaled the beginning of a "iron fist" policy by the Israeli military government on the West Bank.
Since then the building -- called Beit Hadassah by the Israelis -- has become a rallying point for militant Jewish settlers who want to expand the Israeli presence both in downtown Hebron and all over the West Bank.
Beit Hadassah was a Jewish hospital until Hebron's historic Jewish community was driven out by Arab massacre in 1929, in British mandate days. It was illegally occupied in April 1979 by Jewish squatters, led by the wife of Kyriat Arba's militant religious leader, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who believes unswervingly in Israel's historical and religious right to sovereignty over the whole West Bank.
Many Israeli leaders feared this would ignite tensions in Hebron, a conservative seat of Muslim fundamentalism. Initially, Prime Minister Menachem Begin said angrily that the women should leave. But political considerations deterred him from evicting them.
After the murders, Gen. Haim Bar-Lev, the opposition Labor Party's shadow defense minister, charged that the presence of the squatters was in part responsible. The Begin government, however, responded to the murders by expulsion of two elected West Bank mayors and by harsh restrictions on most West Bank leaders.
As the Israeli elections draw near, Beit Hadassah settlers, granted tacit permission by the government to stay and to have their husbands visit them, are pressing the government to expand settlement in Hebron. Daily busloads of Israeli schoolchildren and visitors pour into the building, its rooms crammed with sleeping mats, tables, benches, and kitchen equipment, to hear the settlers' case.
But Beit Hadassah's Arab neighbors charge that the settlers have adopted a policy of systematic harassment aimed at encouraging the Arabs to leave. They cite incidents of stone-throwing, vandalism, scuffles between settlers' children and Arab elementary schoolgirls across the road, settlers' searches of Arab passerby, and the collapse of an Arab-owned shop roof under one section of Beit Hadassah. The arabs say it was deliberately smashed, and the settlers retort it was broken by joyous festival dancing.
The military government, after investigating, claimed the incidents were minor, and the Israeli Supreme court declined to take action. But neighbor Bilal sharabati, whose apartment overlooks one section of Beit Hadassah's roof, says, "I am afraid to sleep at night. Their children told my mother, "This is our country; your house is ours, too.'"
Mr. Sharabati, who worked for three years as a waiter in Tel Aviv and speaks fluent Hebrew, says Beit Hadassah children broke ten panes of his window glass one month ago, and four additional frames last week. The panes are now boarded up and chicken wire is strung in front of the window.
"When the settlers came," he says, "they had no television, so we put ours in front of the window so their children could watch. I want nothing of them, just for this damage to stop. Fathers must tell their children what to do."
Rabbi Levinger, a tall, thin, bearded patriarchal figure with a charismatic vision of Jewish redemption through settlement of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), has little patience with the Arabs' complaints.
"some children play, a child throws a stone, there is a little discussion between students -- people who want to make a big deal of this are anti-Semitic, " he says. "The Arabs want to see the Jews weak. They don't want to see a healthy people. But they can never again do to us in the land of Israel what non-Jews did to us in the Diaspora [outside Israeli]."
Caught in the middle are the Israeli soldiers guarding Beit Hadassah and Kyriat Arba, most of them reservists doing compulsory annual service. Their accounts have furnished material for reports by Israeli journalists of settler harassment. They say most Kyriat Arba settlers and Hebronites coexist peacefully but "fanatics" often set the tone.
"They want to show the A rabs that they are in control," explained one reservist, a young insurance agent.