Amid gunfire, a rabbi is laid to rest

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The Independent Online

A thousand Jewish settlers buried Hillel Lieberman, a 36-year-old, American-born rabbi, yesterday, amid the bare, white rocks, crumbling earth and dry thistles high above the West Bank where he had chosen to make his home. They were mourning not only the man, but Joseph's Tomb, in the nearby Arab city of Nablus, where he prayed and studied daily with fanatical devotion.

A thousand Jewish settlers buried Hillel Lieberman, a 36-year-old, American-born rabbi, yesterday, amid the bare, white rocks, crumbling earth and dry thistles high above the West Bank where he had chosen to make his home. They were mourning not only the man, but Joseph's Tomb, in the nearby Arab city of Nablus, where he prayed and studied daily with fanatical devotion.

It was his attachment to the shrine, which Israel evacuated on Saturday morning and a Palestinian mob vandalised minutes later, that exposed the father of two young sons to premature death. He went out alone to a spot near his home settlement of Elon Moreh to look across the valley and see what was happening at the shrine. He never returned. His bullet-riddled body was found the next day, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

The funeral stretched over four hours of reluctantly suppressed emotion. The settlers had promised the local army commander that they would avoid confrontation. They kept their word, but the appetite for vengeance was palpable. And the violence that has brought the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the point of collapse was imminent.

The ceremony began with eulogies in the synagogue of Elon Moreh, then proceeded in a convoy of 20 cars and 10 buses through the winding, deserted road to Yitzhar, about five miles to the south. The battleship grey ambulance carrying the body, draped in a black and white prayer shawl, paused opposite the low, barren hill where the murdered rabbi had been dumped by his Arab killer.

Soldiers in combat gear with automatics at the ready dotted the landscape. Others manned a barricade on the road to a Palestinian village. We had passed a single Arab-owned car. One of the settler rabbis approached the young lieutenant commanding the detachment. "We had an agreement with your colonel that there would be no Arabs on the road. If we see another, it could be very dangerous," he said. No one doubted it.

A few minutes later, a bunch of Arab youths slipped down to the roadside and hurled stones at some of the rear buses. A group of young Jews got down and pelted them back. Within minutes, other Arabs opened fire, slightly wounding two passengers. Israelis shot back. The army arrived, a helicopter gunship hovered overhead, order was restored. The cortege went on its way.

Mordechai Eliahu, a former chief rabbi of Israel, appealed in a long, impassioned sermon - promising the congregation that their presence on the West Bank would speed the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem - for the settlers to leave their revenge to God. But Benny Katzover, a veteran settlement leader, acknowledged afterwards that the chances were slim.

"A lot of people here are talking about avenging Rabbi Hillel," he said. "If the army doesn't act firmly, if Joseph's Tomb becomes a mosque, I fear they will take the law into their own hands. They fell as if we have no government. The Arabs can shoot at will." Asked if settlement leaders might exercise restraint, he replied bluntly: "Some of them won't even try". The mourners were defiant. Joseph's Tomb, they insisted, was not lost. It would "live forever", they would be back. Elon Moreh was one of the flagships of the Gush Emunim settlement movement of the Seventies. Yitzhar is a stronghold of disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the expulsion of all Arabs and was barred from the Israeli parliament as a racist. Rabbi Lieberman asked to be buried there, beside a murdered friend.

These are not people who will pack up and go, but many are approaching the end of their tether this troubled October. Shner Katz, a teacher and father of four, confided: "It's getting very hard. We're being stoned. We're being shot at all the time. I don't know how much longer we can stand such a situation."

Did that mean he might leave Shilo, on the road to Ramallah, where he has lived for 10 years? "We'll never leave. This is our country, this is our home. Only our dead bodies will leave this place," he said.

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