Guests who refused to leave inspired three decades of settlement

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The Independent Online

It began at Passover, 1968. A group of Israelis booked into a hotel in Hebron, where they planned to hold a Seder banquet. What neither the Palestinian innkeeper nor the Israeli military administration knew was that they meant to stay.

It began at Passover, 1968. A group of Israelis booked into a hotel in Hebron, where they planned to hold a Seder banquet. What neither the Palestinian innkeeper nor the Israeli military administration knew was that they meant to stay.

Led by Moshe Levinger, a visionary rabbi, they had come to re-establish a presence in a holy city from which Arab rioters had evicted a centuries-old Jewish community in 1929.

The guests refused to leave. Their tenacity paid.

First the government moved them into an army camp, then a new suburb above the town, then an enclave in the heart of the old city next to the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered by Jews and Muslims as the tomb of their common forefather, Abraham.

The story was repeated over the West Bank - and later the Gaza Strip - sometimes with official blessing, sometimes in defiance of governments. With a messianic passion, the settlers were "redeeming" the Promised Land. Their blend of faith and nationalism was hard to resist.

For the first decade, Labour administrations tried to sow the settlements along strategic frontiers away from Arab population centres. Menachem Begin's Likud government, elected in 1977, changed the priorities. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Begin replied: "As the man who set the borders of the Land of Israel for all time." With Ariel Sharon as his enthusiastic agent, he scattered settlements among Arab towns and villages along the spine of Palestine. By 1983, when Begin left office, the Jewish population across the pre-1967 border had grown to 40,000 in 117 communities. It is now 240,000 in 146.

Not all are "ideological" settlements. Israel augmented the expansion with new commuter towns, offering young families quality of life and cheap mortgages. Secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews took them up on it. They wouldn't want to leave, but wouldn't go to war for their homes.

A recent survey found that 90 per cent would not break the law if ordered to leave. Of these, 36 per cent would take compensation and go, 54 per cent would resist within legal boundaries, 10 per cent might break the law, with 1 per cent ready to use force against Israeli soldiers. The more radical settlers, in Hebron and elsewhere, have a record of violence against Arabs and fellow Jews.

In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, an American-born doctor, shot dead 29 Muslims at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs. His neighbours turned his grave into a shrine. They wouldn't leave quietly.

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