More settlers: answer to Hebron killing?

The death of Aharon Gross, a young, bespectacled Israeli seminary student, at the hands of Arab assailants in the center of ancient Hebron, and the Jewish rioting which followed have raised basic questions about Israel's continued rule of the largely Palestinian-populated West Bank:

* Can violence between local Arabs and Jewish settlers on the West Bank be avoided?

* Will increased Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab cities like Hebron inflame or calm such violence?

* Can Israeli authorities who dismissed Hebron's Arab mayor and council following the murder enforce the law impartially upon Jews and Arabs in the West Bank and how committed are they to trying?

The brutal and still confusing circumstances of Mr. Gross's death on July 7 highlight the tension between Jewish and Arab residents of the West Bank, which is felt most intensely inside Hebron.

According to his mother, Yehudit, Aharon was a studious 18-year-old who emigrated with his parents from Staten Island, N.Y., in 1974. He had chosen the Shovei Hebron Yeshiva (seminary) in Hebron not out of ideological devotion to Jewish settlement on the West Bank, but because he admired the rabbi (spiritual leader) who headed it.

But the Yeshiva's locale in a building Israelis call Beit Romano, after the Jewish Romano family of Turkish origins which built it 120 years ago, plunged him into the center of controversy.

Beit Romano - a dilapidated three-story building with high arched ceilings set in a courtyard guarded by Israeli soldiers - was, until two years ago, used by Hebron Arabs as a local school. It sits in the heart of downtown Hebron next to the bus station. It flanks the old Arab market, or casbah.

It is minutes away from the source of Hebron's holiness to both Jews and Arabs, the cave of Machtela, the traditional burial place of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The cave now sits under a massive mosque in which a Jewish synagogue also functions.

Tragedy has been the spur for settler attempts to rebuild the ancient Jewish quarter in Hebron, an extremely conservative Arab town of 70,000 people. Abandoned after bloody anti-Jewish riots in 1929 and 1936, the small quarter stands in the heart of Hebron's business and market district. In 1980, a determined band of Jewish women settlers and their children from the Kiryat Arba Jewish suburb above Hebron squatted in a stone building on the edge of the one-time Jewish quarter. The quarter, which they called Beit Hadassah, is alleged to have been owned by Jews before 1929. (Illegal squatting is also the means by which Kiryat Arba was founded.)

At first the government of Prime Minster Menachem Begin denounced the squatters. But moving them out was too politically explosive for a government committed to massive Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

The massacre by Palestinian gunmen of six Kiryat Arba settlers in front of Beit Hadassah in May 1980 led both to the deportation of the then Hebron mayor and to a government decision to sanction settlement in downtown Hebron. Subsequent nonfatal attacks on Jews were answered by government permission for settlers to move into Beit Romano and some abandoned buildings just behind the Hebron Arab produce market.

But future expansion of this area was limited by an Israeli supreme court order, upon petition of Hebron's acting mayor, Mustafa Natche. It was a move that infuriated Hebron's Jewish settlers. At present there are only 20 Jewish families and 15 to 20 young male seminary students living in Hebron, along with 4,500 Jewish settlers in Kiryat Arba.

Jewish-Arab tensions have been rising in Hebron for several weeks. Settlers are angry at rock throwing by Arab children at Israeli vehicles. They have charged the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with inadequate protection of their security.

Several vigilante groups recently claimed responsibility for burning two Arab buses in revenge and for uprooting Hebron electricity pylons, which they claim were on Kiryat Arba land. This spring shots were fired into an Arab home below Kiryat Arba, wounding a four-year-old Arab girl, and a bomb went off outside a mosque near the Hebron produce market. In mid-June a grenade was tossed at Beit Romano.

On the day of Aharon Gross's death, an American-born settler from Kiryat Arba was sentenced by an Israeli court to 39 months in jail for firing at an Arab car near Hebron, the longest sentence ever for a Jewish vigilante.

When Aharon Gross set out with a friend around the corner to stand opposite the Hebron vegetable market and wait for a minibus from Kiryat Arba which would pick up some kindergarten children - a helpful gesture which friends said typified him - he was wearing an Uzi machine gun slung over his shoulder. Like every Jewish settler, including seminary students, he was entitled to a ''personal weapon,'' although his training had been minimal.

He and his friend had been warned just the previous day that a Palestinian terrorist band might be about to strike in the area; they were only supposed to go outside in pairs. He stood on a small circle opposite the market, one of the busiest spots in Hebron, when his companion left him for a moment. In the split second in which he was alone just as the Kiryat Arba bus was rounding the circle , three Arab assailants set upon him with knives and seized his gun.

The three Jewish settlers in the bus, instead of helping the wounded Aharon, jumped from their vehicle and took off after the Arabs. Then in bizarre sequence , Arabs mistook the youth for one of their own (his religious skullcap had fallen off) and drove him to the local Arab hospital; one of the Arabs, mistakenly and hysterically identifying him as his son, took him home after the hospital pronounced him dead. And not until 90 minutes later was he found by police and Kiryat Arba residents, after the Arab family's real son had returned.

These strange details take on special significance because they have raised questions in the Israeli news media and among officials and Aharon Gross's family about Jewish-Arab relations in Hebron.

The Israeli media have asked whether Aharon's friends were more intent on chasing Arabs than on helping him (though his friends say they did not realize the extent of his wounds). His Yeshiva colleagues charge that an Israeli soldier looked at the body and offered no help because he thought it was an Arab (the IDF denies this). The story has sparked debate here about the attitude of Jews to Arabs.

Unanswered questions multiply. How could Aharon have been mistaken by an Arab for his son, the Gross family asks, especially when he wore a Jewish religious vest under his shirt with distinctive fringes?

Azooz Abu Sneina, a haggard, unshaven man wearing a long Egyptian-style Arab dress, holds out a photo of his son - with a noticeable resemblance to Aharon - and says he was too distraught to notice. Abu Sneina gave his name freely to the hospital, the means by which Gross was located. Yet, most mysteriously, he is the brother of one of the convicted killers of the six settlers outside Beit Hadassah in May 1980. Was Aharon still alive when found, despite the hospital's pronouncement? The IDF says no; his friends say yes.

But behind these mysteries lurks the most pressing question: Is there a way to prevent such incidents in the future? The immediate response of Kiryat Arba and Hebron settlers was to burn down the Hebron vegetable market in revenge on the night of the murder, in full view of Israeli soldiers while the city was under curfew, and to demand a tougher IDF policy.

The settlers' long-range answer: large-scale Jewish settlement in downtown Hebron. ''The more Jews there are in Hebron, the safer it will be,'' insists redheaded Asher, a friend and fellow student of Aharon's at Beit Romano. Sitting with nodding colleagues at a trestle table in a Spartan common room near tall bookcases filled with religious volumes, he explained, ''The problem starts when the Arabs sense the Jews aren't safe in Hebron, because they are few.''

Elikim Haetzni, a lawyer from Kiryat Arba, who is among settlers camped in four tents and a caravan in front of Israeli military headquarters in Hebron in a protest against lax Army security, is more graphic. Seated at a table neatly stacked with religious books in front of a large refrigerator (the military has run electricity to the protesters' tents), he says bluntly, ''We want to live with the Arabs but any Arab who doesn't want to live with us will ultimately find himself outside the West Bank. If they deny Hebron is my home, they will be in trouble.'' Some more right-wing settlers, like Knesset (parliament) member Hanan Porat, speak openly of possible expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank.

At Sunday's Israeli Cabinet meeting the Israeli government took no decison on expanding settlement in downtown Hebron, but several ministers called for faster development.

Housing Minister David Levy told Israel Radio that he envisioned two stages of development for Hebron's Jewish quarter - a first stage to install a few dozen more families soon, and a second stage over the next three years to bring in 500 families.

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