Hebron: Settlers, police exchange barbs

The confrontation between civilians and security forces was about more than just the Hebron marketplace.

hebron protest 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
hebron protest 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
Although the Hebron riots of last week were seen by many around the country as a natural phenomenon resulting from government-issued eviction orders, both settlers and police tell a different story. The civil violence, which captivated Israelis, had much deeper roots, they said, with the order to evacuate the Jewish-occupied Palestinian market stalls being the straw that broke the camel's back in a long-simmering feud brewing between settlers and police here for years. Dressed in riot gear and fanning out in teams of no less than half a dozen, the police searched for suspects around the Jewish areas of town late last week, sometimes entering homes in attempts to arrest those identified by photographs and other intelligence as having attacked Israeli security forces and Palestinian civilians during the riots. The situation having calmed considerably since Tuesday, settler leaders charged that the continued arrests by the police amounted to "provocation" of the Hebron Jewish community and that they should leave the now-calm residents alone. According to Hebron Deputy Ch.-Supt. Avi Herush, the arrests will continue until those believed responsible for crimes during the riots are brought to justice. "It's not provocation," he said, "the role of the police and the army of Israel is to maintain law and order. If [the settlers] wanted to have quiet, they should have acted before and not after they saw a large police force and felt like they had their backs to the wall." Countering Herush, settler spokesman David Wilder said the police were embarking on a campaign of "revenge." "People in uniform shouldn't deal through their emotions but rather through their intellect," Wilder said. "By the beginning of the week, we had [the rioting] stopped and that's when the police started with their massive provocation." Although Hebron remains a closed military zone until Sunday night, the IDF has relaxed its position in response to promises from leaders of the community to maintain the calm that prevailed over the last few days. Nevertheless, in Avraham Avinu and the market place, a quiet pervaded more out of tense anticipation than the tranquility of the cloudless winter day. Under directives from community leaders, the vast majority of Hebron's Jewish residents refused to speak to the media. Having closed ranks within their tightly knit community, those that would talk to reporters offer insults toward the media and police. About the only break in the silence here came from Miriam Levinger, a resident of Hebron since 1979 who originally came from the US. From her second-story window she called reporters "rat finks," and characterized the army and police as Nazis while hurling epithets at them in German. In a 45-minute interview in the Hebron police station, Herush described the police as being attacked in varying degrees by the Avraham Avinu Jews "for years." During the course of routine patrols and duties, he said, his officers often had eggs and water thrown on them in the neighborhood he described, raising his fingers to mark quotations, as "its own little ghetto." Wilder did not dispute such incidents taking place, but put the blame on the Israeli government, which he said has used the Hebron police as "an extended arm of the Israeli left-wing prosecutors." As a result, "the police and their treatment and attitude toward the citizens of Hebron was almost as if they were enemies," he said. According to Yossi Klein Halevi,a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, the Hebron police find themselves in the unenviable position of being stuck between Palestinians and Jews and vilified by both. "For years, the settlers have seen the police in Hebron as almost a UN peace keeping force meant to protect the Palestinians from the Jews as much as the Jews from the Palestinians," he said. "That led to tremendous resentment and also a fair bit of racism directed against Druse police. Since the withdrawal from Gaza some of that hostility has now crossed over to the army so that some settlers no longer view the army as being quite on their side either." The antipathy emanating from the Hebron settlers spoke from the walls as well. Graffiti declaring "revenge" was scrawled on the closed market place and signs proclaiming, "we won't forget and we won't forgive," a mantra used by the left wing after Rabin's assassination, were affixed to many a door. "When you have an open wound like [the Gaza disengagement] and pour salt in it, people start to scream," Wilder said, explaining the feelings and behavior of the Hebron settlers and the youth who came to aide their cause after the eviction notices were served. Sowing the seeds for future resistance, Wilder added that if the IDF or police do move to evacuate Jews from any of the territory they now occupy in Hebron, then the riots of the past week were only a preview of things to come. "What happened here at the beginning of the week was children in a nursery school compared to what might happen next," he said. "I don't like to be crass, but if someone came in and said 'I'm going to rape your wife,' would you say, 'come in, here's the bedroom?'" Such words did not surprise Herush, who said he expected stiff resistance in the event of the evacuation order coming down here and in other West Bank communities. "It is likely to be violent," he said, "and I assume particularly difficult with the Jewish community in Hebron." When asked if he felt the government had provided him the necessary support to carry out the mission to date, Herush had no comment.