Hebron Agonistes: Too Much For Israel

The apartments of Kiryat Arba, as seen from the yard of the el-Hai family in the wadi below.

It has been common for educated Israelis to think, and Israeli diplomats and American Jewish leaders to present, the settler community of Hebron as a kind of radical nuisance. Presumably, the settlers are a side-show of a defensive strategic policy, a touch of hubris gone wrong, a little understandible selfishness after centuries of self-effacement—anyway, a line that can be moved when the time is right, certainly not a country within a country that has grown, SimCity-like, into something the size of the Jewish colony in Palestine in 1946.

In this view—not entirely wrong—the settlers were post-1967 Israelis only more so: people who took classical Zionist ideas about settling the Land of Israel a little too seriously, or took the Jews’ election a little too literally, or accepted cheap mortgages from the Jewish Agency a little too opportunistically; people who have randomly scattered themselves in the occupied territory in a now obviously failed effort to annex the holy land, or just to show that Jews can live everywhere in it.

The settlers, presumably, have settled under the nose of a forbearing, once vaguely sympathetic Israeli government, otherwise preoccupied by encirclement and terror. But they are people whom the Israeli government—if it ever had a real peace partner in the Palestinians, and not jihadist terrorists firing missiles, or sending in suicide bombers—would clear out in a great show of sovereign will. The recent clearing of the “House of Contention” by the Israeli Army is proof, so the argument goes, of the Israeli army’s residual power. The more recent breakdown of the cease fire with Hamas is proof of how Israel faces an existential threat, and dares not be distracted by the settlers.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s picked up the scent of power, is defining a new centrism by triangulating these poles. He knows that Israelis have lost patience with Judeans, or at least the disquieting ones. He’s made a show of purging one of the most fanatic of the settlers, Moshe Feiglin, from the 20th. position in the Likud list for the Knesset (though many more remain in 
the top 30); and he is simultaneously telling us that both the peace talks Olmert conducted with the Palestinian Authority, and the “time of retreat” in Gaza, are over. No two-state solution will compromise the existence of Kiryat Arba (no more than the unity of Jerusalem), he says. But neither settler zealots nor Palestinian terrorists, presumably, will be allowed to challenge the existence of the state. Each side—some now, some later—will be forced to change their behavior by Israeli state force.

I WENT TO Hebron a couple of weeks ago, as part of a delegation of Israelis hoping to show a measure of solidarity with an Arab family whose patriarch, Abed el-Hai, had been shot at point blank range defending his home from one Kiryat Arba settler as the House of Contention was being cleared. There is no need to sentimentalize this gruff, stolid man—whose many barefooted grandchildren, sticky from holiday candy and twittering over
 our cell phones, will be run over by global forces if peace should ever come. But let’s just say that a day in Hebron focuses the mind. 

You think out from Hebron, and the holes in the common wisdom become obvious, well, certainly less abstract. A different pattern takes shape, and virtually every premise of the common wisdom falls away.

1. Kiryat Arba, with surrounding settlements, is a solid town of about 10,000 people and growing. Many of its youth were born there, marinating in a peculiar and vicious righteousness. But there can be no Palestinian state if Kiryat Arba remains; to keep its residents under Israeli sovereignty, you would have to cut the southern West Bank in half, and keep checkpoints all along the route from Gush Etzion. Kiryat Arba’s residents would never accept Palestinian citizenship, even if this were offered. Imagine offering Klansmen rule by Stokely Carmichael, or Martin Luther King, for that matter. 

2. According to army intelligence, and demonstrated precedent, a substantial number of Kiryat Arba residents would be willing to violently resist the Israeli army. Reserve army units—young men from Herzliya or Netanya—will tell you the settlers are out of their minds. But this is not the only army. An increasing number of junior officers conducting the occupation come from the movements and homes of the settlers. The army is there, soldiers say, to keep the peace. But in any case, this means enforcing the status quo, in which settlements naturally expand. 

3. There is nothing random about what the settlers are doing. In Hebron, the idea is to create a land bridge from Kiryat Arab to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It is Abed el-Hai’s bad luck that his home is in the way, in the wadi below Kiryat Arba, which the settlers want to turn “Jewish.” Most nights, Kiryat Arba residents throw rocks, garbage, and bags of urine into his yard. 
In the area known as H-2, where the settlers have rights under the Wye Agreement (you know, the agreement then-prime minster Netanyahu negotiated in 1998), the Arab population has declined from about 35,000 to 18,000.   

The road from Kiryat Arba to the Tomb has a yellow (that's right, yellow) line on it, indicating that no Arab is allowed to walk on it; the settlers push their baby-strollers freely, while army jeeps patrol up and down, and Arab kids watch from third floor windows, many of them with iron screens to protect them from rocks, etc. 

The settlers have set up a synagogue on the land of Jaabri family—another family in the way—which the Israeli High Court has declared illegal, and the army has taken down over 30 times, only to have the “minyan” rebuild it. During prayers, their children often throw rocks, etc., onto the homes of the Jaabris. A stone’s throw in the other direction is the grave of, and monument to, Baruch Goldstein

4. Multiply the Hebron problem by twenty, and you have the real, grotesque problem that occupation has engendered. Jerusalem is the radioactive core of it. Try to evacuate Kiryat Arba by force and tens of thousands will stream down from yeshivot in Jerusalem to stand with them. 

No Israeli leader wants to deal with facing down the new Judeans—or can, without destroying Israeli social solidarity. I have written here before about how all fanatics live within concentric circles of support. No matter who wins a majority in the next election, about half of Israeli Knesset members will be from circles which the settlers count on—National Orthodox, Shas, Leiberman’s Russians, Haredi—people concentrated in and around Jerusalem, whom the settlers will tell you would be in settlements themselves if they had the guts; people who will nevertheless apply the “values” the settlers stand for to Jerusalem. 

Again, Netanyahu has demoted Feiglin. But the government he will form will rest on this Judean coalition. And if Livni-Barak win, they will face an opposition nearly the size of their own bloc, with many sympathetic members, and a fear of resting their coalition (as they will have to) on the Arab parties. 

5. Hamas is growing in power—in the West Bank, too—directly as a result of this grotesquery. It is absurd to think of Gaza as a separate matter. Nor will the Hamas leadership be intimidated by shows of force. Actually, they thrive on it—precisely because eruptions of violence allow them to be seen as the steadfast opposition to the inertial expansion of Israeli occupation. An Israeli attack on Gaza, which must be bloody, will be play right into Hamas’s hands. 

6. True, Israelis on the coastal plain are increasingly appalled by the settlers, and will tell you so. Livni’s biggest applause line at the Globes business conference last week was her insistence that, under her leadership, peace talks with the Palestinians will continue. But taking on the settlers is another matter. It is more politic to talk about smashing Hamas, whose missile attacks on Shderot truly are insufferable.

7. Netanyahu speaks of "economic peace" as alternative to the peace process. This is also absurd. Palestinians cannot build businesses with 500 checkpoints across the West Bank. Those checkpoints are mainly to protect the settlers. 

WHERE DOES THIS leave us? The simple fact is, this problem is too big for Israel. We will need the world’s involvement; anyone who tells you different is either covering for the settlers, or afraid for electoral reasons to appear squishy about Israeli autonomy, or arrogant, or ignorant, or thick, or all of these at once. This post is not the place to describe what involvement means, though the contours of a two-state deal have been obvious for many years. The point is, what Hebron represents cannot be solved by this deal in a few decisive months, like the evacuation of the Sinai was. New changes to the landscape will take years. Or the landscape will look like Bosnia.

Perhaps the saddest part of all of this is that first patriarch of Hebron, Abraham, never turned promised land holy. When faced with contention, as his herdsmen quarreled with Lot, he said something unforgettable but forgotten: "Is not the whole land before you? Let's part company. If you go to the left, I'll go to the right; if you go to the right, I'll go to the left."