Settlers Regret Rabin Killing, But Stand Their Ground

Far right is only a tiny segment of Israelis living on the West Bank

DAVID WALDMAN, an American-born Jewish settler who lives in this militant right-wing stronghold on the West Bank, has not slept properly since Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally on Saturday night.

''I have said very extreme things about Mr. Rabin in the past and predicted that what he was doing would lead to a terrible tragedy,'' says Mr. Waldman, wearing the skull cap of a religious Jew.

''But never in my wildest nightmares would I think of using a gun to kill Rabin or anyone in the political arena,'' he says, his face reflecting the fatigue and grief of a man trying to come to terms with Rabin's death at the hands of a religious Jew.

The assassination, which has left Israel deeply troubled, has also created a climate of fear and uncertainty in Jewish settlements like this one. Kiryat Arba was the home of Baruch Goldstein, the American-born settler who gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer in February last year.

On Monday a liberal Israeli artist, who says he could no longer stand the sight on television of extremists dancing around Mr. Goldstein's shrine, daubed the memorial with black paint and smashed the lights that illuminated it at night.

The 130,000 or so Jewish settlers on the West Bank represent only 3 percent of Israel's population, but their resistance to the extension of Palestinian autonomy has become a major obstacle to the Israel-PLO peace accord.

The mainstream Israeli right, such as the opposition Likud Party and the establishment settler bodies, have condemned the killing of Rabin. They have also tried to distance themselves from the assassin, Yigal Amir, a religious Jew who appears to have acted alone but has claimed divine sanction for his deed.

Focus of a bitter struggle

The small group of far-right settlers who have applauded Amir's action probably represent less than 5 percent of settlers, or about 0.2 percent of Israel's population.

Waldman, formerly an orthodox Jewish rabbi in Kingston, N.Y., emigrated to Israel 15 years ago and settled in the territory known as the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The West Bank, known to religious Jews by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria, is the focus of a bitter struggle between the secular Israeli government and religious and Zionist Jews who have settled there over the past 20 years.

Kiryat Arba, a settlement of some 5,000 right-wing Jews, was also at the forefront of a civil disobedience campaign to halt plans for the handing over of large parts of the West Bank to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) in a phased land-for-peace deal.

Waldman's views reflect the position of the majority of Jewish settlers and also of many supporters of the Israeli right.

''I would say that the reaction of the overwhelming majority of people here [in Kiryat Arba] is one of shock at Mr. Rabin's death and the fact a Jew killed a Jew,'' Waldman says.

''Nobody thought this could happen. Nobody believed it was possible,'' he says.

''We are against violence, and we belong here because the government of Israel sent us here and we believe that the God of Israel told us we belong here,'' says Waldman, now an English teacher at a yeshiva, a religious school near the town of Nablus.

''But we didn't want him [Rabin] to die,'' Waldman says, expressing his irritation that the views of a handful of ultra-extremists are seen as representative of all religious Jewish settlers.

'We are in a bind'

Waldman says that the civil- disobedience campaign must continue, but he concedes that the cause has been severely set back by the Rabin assassination.

''It has made our cause more difficult. We are in a bind. But the whole country is in a bind. We are entering a very unpredictable phase,'' Waldman says.

''There has been a wave of sympathy for Rabin and his policies which included, among other things, making Kiryat Arba non-Jewish,'' says Waldman, referring to government plans to transfer large parts of the West Bank to Palestinian rule.

''We should not stop the civil disobedience we started, but we should emphasize that we are against violence,'' says Waldman, who has taken part in the symbolic occupation of West Bank settlements that led to confrontation with Israeli security forces.

Waldman says he is very concerned for the future. ''We are afraid that the violence could lead to more violence - even right-wing leaders being assassinated by left-wing extremists,'' he says.

''There is a feeling that the Arabs cannot destroy Israel but the Jews can,'' he says, noting that the Second Jewish Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago because of Jewish infighting.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.