(photo credit: AP)
The escalating confrontation between settlers and security forces in Hebron is Ehud Olmert's first serious test as acting prime minister. It also presents an exceptionally incendiary Jewish challenge to Israeli authority. This week's riots - the culmination of decades of Jewish fanaticism aimed not only at Palestinians, but also at the State of Israel - illuminate the ugliest and most inexcusable face of the ongoing occupation.
The Jewish settlers in Hebron and the young ruffians they have recruited are perpetrating acts that are inhuman, immoral, anti-Jewish and undemocratic. If Israel's image - let alone moral rectitude - is to be salvaged, it is not enough to remove the Jewish squatters from the market they invaded four years ago. The extremist and subversive settlement in Hebron must be disbanded.
Over the years, the Jewish enclave in Hebron has come to embody unbridled intolerance and messianic militancy. Successive Israeli governments, unwilling or unable to tackle the small band of settlers, have time and again surrendered to their demands. This was the case when the Pessah invasion of Beit Hadassah by Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his followers was retroactively endorsed by Labor leaders, when the Tel Rumeida outpost was legalized, when the retail market was closed after Baruch Goldstein's 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshipers, when the Hebron agreements signed by the Netanyahu government locked 35,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled segment of the city (H2), and when eight Jewish families installed themselves in Palestinian homes after the murder of Shalhevet Pass four years ago.
This appeasement policy has not, however, mollified the firebrands of Hebron nor quelled their expansionist and exclusionary fervor. The Palestinian residents of the city are the main, but by no means the only, targets of their ongoing provocations. The human distress they have been subjected to in recent years is unspeakable.
THE RESTRICTIONS imposed on the Palestinians of H2 in order to placate the 500 or so Jews bent on remaining in the city are mind-boggling. They cannot walk on main thoroughfares at any hour of the night or day. They cannot move goods from one part of the city to another. Those unlucky enough to be enclosed in the Israeli-controlled section of the city cannot use their cars, visit relatives, or open their shops. Their homes and their persons are repeatedly subject to random searches.
Palestinians' lives have been systematically disrupted by Jewish settlers fortified by youthful gangs imported into town to bully, heckle, humiliate, torment and loot. Police response has been, at best, inadequate. Most of the culprits apprehended have been released because they are underage. The number of hooligans convicted in Israeli courts has been infinitesimal.
The main victims of this continuous nightmare have been women. Traditionally responsible for buying food, they have been unable to reach the few stalls that are still open to purchase provisions. Their movement beyond H2 has been barred by electric fences that pose a constant health hazard. They have become the butt of verbal barbs and physical assaults - mostly by Jewish children whose Palestinian counterparts are not allowed to play outside. Mothers and their offspring spend endless hours closed up in their homes with no hope in sight.
The sheer and utter inhumanity of the Palestinian condition in Hebron has been ignored for far too long. So, too, has the blatantly anti-Jewish nature of settler behavior. In the name of historical rights and biblical roots the city of the patriarchs and matriarchs (once the symbol of coexistence) has become synonymous with prejudice, discrimination and disregard for the other - ideas totally alien to the Jewish tradition.
THE PRESENT outcry against the Hebron settlers and their spiritual leaders has been prompted neither by their treatment of Palestinians nor by their offensive worldview but by their defiance of Israeli authorities. The lawless enclave that is the Jewish settlement in Hebron refuses to accept the High Court order to vacate homes in the marketplace.
For almost a week, while more Palestinian houses have been razed and businesses ravaged, orange-masked Jews have greeted the IDF with eggs, sticks, paint and rocks. Soldiers have been hailed with Hitler-like salutes; policemen have been called Nazis. The Jewish rebels have openly disavowed Zionism and dissociated themselves from the State of Israel.
The tenor and conduct displayed by the Jewish renegades in Hebron (and widely condoned by their elders) flies in the face of the rule of law and directly harms state authority. Unless Israel asserts its power now, it will bear responsibility for the damage carried out in its name.
Israel cannot and must not succumb to these provocateurs and the lethal incitement they emit.
The families that invaded the market must be evacuated immediately. The Palestinian residents of Hebron deserve full protection as they go about their daily lives. Those who attacked the soldiers and local residents must be brought to trial.
Above all, the powder keg that is the Jewish settlement in Hebron has to be dismantled. These fanatics not only defile Judaism, they taint Israel's name, undermine its security, flout its values, and truly endanger its physical and ethical future.
The writer, a political scientist, is a former Meretz Knesset member.