The House of Dispute (Extract)

Extract from a story in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here An unfinished four-story house is the latest flash point in the confrontation between settlers and the army in the city of Hebron Oryan Sharabi stands guard at the iron door of the unfinished four-story building in the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron and watches as a fresh detachment of border police takes up positions in and around the structure. Sharabi and a gaggle of youthful defenders of the site, dubbed by the media "the disputed house," idle away the morning with chatter about their idol, Rabbi Meir Kahane (the slain founder of the Jewish Defense League and the outlawed racist Kach party), the Betar Jerusalem soccer team, and the impending court-ordered eviction of Jewish settlers from the building. The policemen are there to protect the inhabitants from possible Arab attacks, but any day now they may be sent in to evacuate the settlers. Eyeing them, Sharabi, an 18-year-old yeshiva student says: "They are sizing us up. They are counting everyone who comes in and everyone who goes out." Sharabi sports flowing sidelocks, and wears a tallit (prayer shawl) intertwined with a pastel rainbow-striped scarf. "But when the crunch comes, everyone from Kiryat Arba will come. Everyone from the hilltops will come," he says, referring to the so-called hilltop youth, who have rallied to resisted previous evacuations. Just across from a Muslim cemetery, the building is situated between the town of Kiryat Arba, populated by 7,500 Jews, and Hebron's Jewish enclave, with its 800 settlers in the heart of the city of 167,000 Arab residents. It stands on a cliff overlooking the worshipers' route from Kiryat Arba, through Hebron's old city, to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. Settlers took control of the house in March 2007, claiming legal ownership, but the original Palestinian co-owner, Faez Rajabi, claims that he never sold it. "They came to me early in the morning and they kicked me out,'' says Rajabi. "They said, 'This is our house.' They brought big groups with them and they kicked us out,'' he tells reporters at the scene of the house. "They're not even listening to the court. This is illegal and inhuman." Tension escalated sharply after a November 16 Supreme Court ruling, which rejected a settler challenge to an early eviction order. Subsequently, youths from the house daubed "Muhammad is a pig" on a nearby mosque, desecrated tombstones in a Muslim cemetery, clashed with soldiers and punctured the tires of army vehicles. Now with several young families and a small cadre of ideologically fervent youths residing there, the building has become the first challenge to the government's resolve to remove settlers from illegal sites since the fiercely contested 2006 evacuation of the Amona outpost, which followed the national trauma of the 2005 disengagement from all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. "There will be surprises," warns red-bearded Dan Toubouli, 33, one of the self-styled "defenders" of the house, when asked what will happen if the authorities attempt to evacuate it. Toubouli's T-shirt is orange, the color that became the symbol of the protest against the Gaza evacuation. "It isn't only about the house," explains one of the youths. "If they evacuate this place, they can evacuate other places like the Migron outpost [an illegal settlement east of Ramallah also slated for evacuation]. If they can evacuate here, they can easily evacuate Judea and Samaria." The role of the border police in this standoff is ambivalent. They are guarding the settlers, but also keeping an eye on them and may be ordered to evacuate them shortly. On the one hand, the settlers regard them as a threat. But when pressed, Sharabi contends that they are there "to protect the house" and ultimately "to protect Tel Aviv." At least one of the border policemen seems to be able to do without this kind of patronage. "What are you going to do, hit me?" he taunts, as he walks past the group of youthful defenders of the house. As the showdown looms, Israel is in the throes of a parliamentary election campaign and the evacuation could have an impact on the way people vote in February. Right-leaning voters could swing towards the Likud opposition and other hawkish parties and away from the centrist Kadima and Labor. On the other hand, after a string of settler vigilante attacks on security forces and Palestinians, failure to confront the extremists in Hebron by seeking a postponement would alienate dovish centrists and left-wingers and impel them toward the dovish Meretz. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor Party is already on the ropes, has said he plans to evict the settlers within a month of the Supreme Court decision, if they don't leave on their own. That is extremely unlikely to happen. Leaders and foot soldiers in the settlers' struggle not only vow to remain in the house but threaten that Hebron 2008 won't look anything like the 2005 evacuation from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, although that was far from being a picnic. There will be no scenes of evacuees hugging and crying with their soldier evacuators; there will be a bitter struggle, they warn, worse than the violence at the demolition of Amona, a hilltop outpost above the West Bank settlement of Ofra where, in February 2006, dozens of settlers and security force officers were injured. The Hebron settlers also vow not to talk to the government, which they do not regard as a legitimate interlocutor. "The willingness to uproot Jews from this building is racism and anti-Semitism," charges Noam Arnon, the gregarious spokesman of the community who shows up at the house to chat with reporters and advise the residents. Arnon insists that the confrontation is being exploited by Barak for political purposes. According to Arnon, by taking on the settlers, Barak believes he can win more seats in the Knesset and save the Labor party from electoral oblivion. But, he claims, it also is a conspiracy to isolate and alienate the settlers in the eyes of the public. Barak is pushing "a whole part of the nation to the wall" so that eventually they will lash out, he warns. "People here will resist. They will defend their property. They will defend their human rights. You can't expect Jews to lose their homes and their property because of this racist regime," he tells The Report. Arnon refuses to reveal what is being planned, but hardly veils his threats of violence. "I don't want to preview what could happen here. It can get out of control. Gush Katif was child's play." Extract from a story in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here