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Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh toured the Jewish community of Hebron on Monday and came under a verbal onslaught from local settlers including far-right activist Baruch Marzel who called the government official a "slut." Sneh, who on Sunday said in a conference in Ramat Gan that the day will come when Israel will need to consider releasing jailed Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, visited Hebron as Yifat Alkobi, a settler from the community was questioned by police for verbally assaulting a Palestinian woman.
Saying that coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Hebron is impossible is not only an oversimplification of the issue, but merely the narrow view of a local hatred which is so bitter, it can't even be termed as a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In many ways it's much worse.
The most intractable and fanatic representatives of both sides live together cheek by jowl, incapable of countenancing any solution save for the total expulsion of the other side. Each side's supporters, within Israel and around the world, cling to radically opposite pictures of the reality on the ground, not merely different narratives.
The settlers huddled around the Cave of the Patriarchs believe that they are bravely clinging on to Abraham's purchase on behalf of the rest of his children while facing the murderous terrorists who make up most of Hebron's Arabs.
The Palestinians, and with them most of the Israeli and international media, see the Jewish community as 600 racists intent on ethnically cleansing the 120,000 local inhabitants. There is no potential middle-ground, no place for compromise, no relative moderates prepared to criticize violence and call for an accommodation.
Within Palestinian society, jokes abound at the expense of the allegedly backward and obstinate khalili, the Hebronites. To a great extent, the 600 Jewish settlers of the Jewish quarter of the town are also different and in a way isolated from the rest of the settlers. While the Gush Emunim movement spread its outposts on the barren hills of Judea and Samaria, relentlessly expanding and enlarging neighborhoods and agricultural communities, the Hebron settlers burrowed deep into the alleyways of the grim mountain-side town. They have a leadership of their own, with only an ambivalent connection to the mainstream Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, their own media operation, lobbyists, fundraisers and internal support organizations.
The council is much too pragmatic in their view, though officially it has always been unanimous in its support of the settlers of Hebron. In private, though, they admit that as important it is for the Jewish people to hold on to Hebron, they wish that the Jews actually keeping up the national presence were a bit more palatable. That's a sentiment echoed by many IDF soldiers who have served in the city.
"I was a right-winger and opposed to withdrawal from any part of Eretz Yisrael," said one paratrooper officer who spent four months with his soldiers around the Jewish Quarter, "but after the way they treated my soldiers I've got no sympathy for them."
But what the officer and the settler pragmatists fail to acknowledge is that there is no one else prepared to go through what the Hebron settlers do. Ninety-nine percent of settlers live in what are in effect dormitory suburbs of Jerusalem and Gush Dan. Those living deeper in the West Bank at least enjoy large villas and gardens at prices that won't buy a two-bedroom flat in Petah Tikva.
The Hebronites raise their large families in cramped warrens, with windows blocked off from the Palestinian's line of fire, in constant danger of terror attacks, cut off from most of the material benefits of Israeli society. That kind of life calls for a certain type of idealist, and also causes a certain coarsening of character. Most of their supporters prefer to do so from afar. More moderate right-wing politicians and spokespeople prefer not to be drawn into questions on the Hebron settlers, not wishing to condone their actions while being careful not to appear anything less than steadfast in their support of the Jewish people's right to the city of our forefathers.
The left-wing groups that have monitored and recorded the daily harassment of the settlers to the Palestinian families living around the quarter have failed for years to draw public attention to what is going on in Hebron. The short video of Yifat Alkobi repeatedly calling a Palestinian woman, hiding behind bars protecting her home, "sharmuta, sharmuta" (whore) dominated the airwaves and Web sites more than any yearly report. Perhaps it was the incongruity of a head-covered religious woman using such coarse language. Alkobi drew almost universal denunciation except from the ultra-rightists, who retorted that she was merely voicing her frustration at the joint persecution of the settlers by the Palestinians, left-wingers, journalists and IDF soldiers.
But more that anything, it revealed something that most Israelis, especially on the right-wing, would prefer not to admit. The Hebron settlers might be a tiny minority in Israeli society, but as they have been allowed to live there for almost four decades, defended by the IDF and receiving most of the social, educational and health services there, they are indeed the representatives of the state, whether we like it or not. Whether or not we as Israelis support the right of Jews to continue living in Hebron, Yifat Alkobi is there on behalf of all of us.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.