'Settlers are a bone in our throats'

Peace Now marks 40 years of "occupation" with a rally in Hebron.

Stones thrown at a departing Peace Now bus marked the end a rally held Tuesday in Hebron by the left-wing organization to mark 40 years of "occupation" in the territories. Peace Now Director-General Yariv Oppenheimer alleged that settler children had thrown the stones, a charge refuted by David Wilder, a spokesman for Hebron's Jewish community. Wilder alleged that Palestinians tossed the stones and added that it was an apt comment on the folly of the Left. Apart from that incident, the hour-long rally passed peacefully. Several hundred Peace Now activists stood in the hot sun with signs urging Israel to leave the territories. Across a dirt parking lot, right-wing activists held a smaller counter rally. Their signs said that Hebron's fate was that of the country. From time to time, the two groups shouted slurs at each other. One right-wing activist yelled that the Peace Now group was equivalent to skinheads and Nazis. The Peace Now demonstrators, in turn, shouted that the settlers were like a "bone in their throats." Oppenheimer, addressing the issue of settler violence, reminded the group that they were able to stand there because they had secured permission for the demonstration from the High Court of Justice. The IDF refused to authorize the demonstration because they feared violence, he said. Wilder, however, said that it was the Palestinians, not the settlers, whom demonstrators should fear. Oppenheimer said that his group had chosen Hebron because it symbolized the difficulty of placing a settlement in the heart of Palestinian territory. Hebron is also significant because a meeting in the city's Park Hotel in 1968 helped start the settler movement. Hebron's original Jewish community was destroyed in 1929 when 67 of its members were killed by Arab rioters. Jews began to resettle the city in 1979. Today, some 800 residents and yeshiva students live among 30,000 Palestinians in the portion of the city under Israeli control. The hardship the Palestinians endure as the result of the settlement's presence "is the best example of the conflict between the two peoples and the way not to solve it," said Oppenheimer. Wilder, however, said that if the initial Jewish community had not been chased out, the settlers' presence there would not be questioned. By asking the community to leave, Wilder said, "They are saying it would be preferable to have lost the war." But left-wing activist Haim Byk said the issue was not the war, but Israeli actions afterwards. Although he has long opposed Israel's actions in the territories, the war's 40th anniversary had pushed him to make his first-ever appearance at a rally. Even though he is religious, Byk said, he acknowledges that part of relinquishing Hebron means giving up the Cave of the Patriarchs - only a short distance away from the demonstration. "It's enough to possess some of ancient Israel," he said. Tzipora Banai, who immigrated to Israel 45 years ago from Montreal, said that it wasn't good for the country to hold onto the territories either from an economic or a moral perspective. Palestinians have lost their homes and their stores as a result of Israel's presence in the city, she said. Right-wing activist Baruch Marzel called that kind of attitude hypocritical. Marzel said he lived on Hebron land that had been owned by Jews for generations. The demonstrators, he charged, lived in neighborhoods or kibbutzim within the pre-1967 border that were built on land taken from Arabs. US immigrant Yishai Fleisher, who organized a group of right-wing protesters from Beit El, said that in response to the slogan "end the occupation now," he has come up with his own. "Not occupied, preoccupied," said Fleisher. Since Biblical times, Jews have been "preoccupied with this land." "Hebron is the root of Jewish presence in the land," Fleisher said, adding that the city's purchase is recorded in the Bible. To call to uproot this Jewish community is the call get rid of the Jewish presence in all of Israel, he added. Looking ahead, Wilder said he hoped that in 40 years, some 400,000 Jews would live in the city, which would have become a symbol of unity for the Jewish people. Oppenheimer said he was born 10 years after the Six Day War. "I hope that 40 years from now, I won't be invited to another Peace Now rally to mark the fifth of June," he said.