Hebron settlers give up comfort to expand Jewish holdings

Beit Hashalom houses 15 families and 40 single adults which sits in an area populated by Palestinians.

hebron 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hebron 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
These days, Hebron settler Ruth Hizmi calls home a large unfinished four-story building with intermittent electricity, three bathrooms and no shower that she shares with more than 120 other people. Although she has a furnished apartment with all these amenities and more a short distance away, Hizmi has given up these comforts to fulfill what she believes is an essential spiritual mission - expanding the Jewish community's holdings in the ancient biblical city. "Thank God, we have gotten to this day," said the mother of seven children, as she sat last week in a cavernous and dusty communal room on the ground floor in the structure, lit only by sunlight. As she spoke, workers hammered and drilled on the floor above her. From the rooftop, settlers hung a huge banner reading: "Hebron, now and forever." In spite of the renovations underway, she has joined 14 other families and some 40 single adults who live in the structure on the main road that links the settlement of Kiryat Arba with Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs less than two kilometers away. The building, which they have named Beit Hashalom, sits in an area populated by Palestinians and was originally built by them for their own mixed use as shops and apartments. It was, however, purchased this winter by the Hebron Jewish community for $700,000 before construction was fully finished. Settlers surprised the defense establishment by moving in on March 19. The civil administration has since said their purchase was legal, but Peretz has announced he intends to evacuate the settlers anyway because they failed to obtain permission for the move. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz said the settlers had the right to turn to the courts to appeal Peretz's decision, which otherwise could only be overturned by the cabinet. Sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have said he would prefer to delay an evacuation. The cabinet could discuss the matter on Sunday, but is unlikely to bring it to a vote until it has finished its own investigation into the legality of the sale, according to the Prime Minister's Office. Last week, the Labor Party threw its support behind Peretz, but it is assumed that a cabinet majority supports the settlers' presence in the building. Hizmi, and others in the building, view the possibility that the government might give its stamp of approval to what amounts to a fourth enclave for the 800-member Jewish community - which lives among 30,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled section of the city - as a victory. The other three enclaves are Tel Rumeida, Beit Hadassah, and Avraham Avinu, which is closest to the Cave of the Patriarchs. If the cabinet votes to let the settlers remain in the building, it would be the first time since 2004 that the Hebron community has substantively increased its property holdings. It tried unsuccessfully to expand in 2006, once to a block of market stalls adjacent to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood and a second time to a Palestinian home outside that same neighborhood. The government blocked both moves. But now having received a number of supportive visits from parliamentarians - including MK Otniel Schneller of Kadima and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai of Shas - settlers hope the government is behind them this time. "After years of retreats and giving back land, there is a ray of light," Hizmi said. So she doesn't mind the hardship entailed in living in the unfinished building, where each family has been provided with only one room until a proper apartment can be constructed for them. Six people sleep in a single room with as yet glass-less windows. Three of her children are married and living elsewhere. As Hizmi talked, she sat wearing a coat, a sweater and a scarf, as it was chilly in the building even during the day. The structure is still not wired for electricity, so light and heat are only provided by a generator at night. Nor does she have her own kitchen. Instead the families have arranged a makeshift communal one in a ground floor area initially intended for Palestinian shops. They have set up refrigerators and gas burners alongside folding tables and plastic chairs. Hizmi said she and the other families - which all are from either Kiryat Arba or Hebron - go back to their former apartments to shower and if they need things, but otherwise they stay in the new building. In time, when they have more than one room and their entire apartments are ready, they will move everything over. One of her new neighbors, Sarit Weinberger, a young mother of three, stood by the stove cooking spaghetti and vegetarian hot dogs for her family. "If this was about comfort, I wouldn't be here," she said. Weinberger said she felt privileged to be at the site, given that there was a waiting list of families wanting to move in. "It's a little bit cold and a little bit hard, but the mission to redeem the land elevates and sustains us," Hizmi added, So much so, said Hizmi, that earlier in the week, upon hearing about the possible eviction on the radio, her high-school age daughter called home from school upset, wanting to know if it was really true. She should have been focused on studying for her matriculation exam, but instead she was upset that she might have to leave here, said Hizmi. She said she was the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were sent to England as part of the Kindertransport, by which some children were sent out of Nazi-occupied Europe, so she understood in a very personal way the importance of fighting to preserve Jewish survival. Hizmi said she was in the new Hebron apartment building for the same reason that she had lived in the city itself for the last 20 years. Those reasons, she said, were identical to the ones that pushed her parents to immigrate from England when she was a small girl. "We believe that a person does not just live his private life, he also has to live a communal life," said Hizmi. She said she prayed that the country's leaders would understand that "we need to stand strong and to emphasize that Israel belongs to the Jews and stop acting as if the land does not belong to us."•