The West Bank: Siege mentality

For 20 years a house in the biblical city of Hebron has been at the centre of a vicious campaign by Jewish settlers to oust its Arab owners. Now, protected by a concrete wall built by Israeli troops, the Sharabati family is attempting to return home. By Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online

The Israeli soldier watching Muhammed Sharabati surveying the ruins of his family home pointed to the side of his own head and described a circle with his index finger. His gesture, the universal sign language for craziness, was his soundless response to the enraged shrieks of the woman leaning over her balcony. "Terrrorist," she shouted down to us. "Thank you for coming here to the house of the terrorists."

The Israeli soldier watching Muhammed Sharabati surveying the ruins of his family home pointed to the side of his own head and described a circle with his index finger. His gesture, the universal sign language for craziness, was his soundless response to the enraged shrieks of the woman leaning over her balcony. "Terrrorist," she shouted down to us. "Thank you for coming here to the house of the terrorists."

Anyone who assumes a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is close should visit the heart of Hebron, an ancient and bitterly divided biblical city in the occupied West Bank. Implementing an order by the Supreme Court of Israel to allow rebuilding and reopening the centuries-old Sharabati house is no easy matter when the people who helped destroy it live only a few feet away. The young soldier and the five other men in his unit were there to perform the unusual task of protecting the family - and more particularly Palestinian construction workers - from the Jewish settlers overlooking it.

As the woman loudly accused the army of "allowing Arab killers to enter our house", prompting her fellow settlers to appear at their windows and other armed troops and Israeli border policemen to deploy across the nearby rooftops, the soldier asked us to go and return later.

The week before, as troops erected an ugly, 13ft-high wall of grey concrete slabs to defend the devastated building from the people of the neighbouring Avraham Avinu settlement, the settlers pelted a protective cordon of police with stones, eggs and paint. Thirteen settlers were arrested and an officer's hand was broken. Anticipating the violence, the army originally delayed enforcing the December court decision. But faced with a fresh legal petition from the family's lawyer, it told them in February they could return.

After 20 years of reverses, Mufid Sharabati, Muhammed's younger brother, said: "For me, and for the city of Hebron, this is a victory. It means right will win in the end. I am very happy with the result." More soberly, he added: "The implementation of this decision is very difficult. There is fear. They [the settlers] attacked us in the past many times. But we will return to our house. We are determined to do that. Allah decides our fate and our life. We have to be steadfast."

The struggle over the Sharabatis' right to re-enter the house they have lived in for generations symbolises much that is most intractable in the conflict. Gaza, as the world knows, is to be stripped of its 21 settlements this summer. In return, President George Bush has agreed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's demand that the biggest West Bank settler population centres would remain in Israeli hands in any peace deal.

The 900 Jewish settlers in four enclaves inside Hebron do not fall into either category; not only do they live deep in the West Bank but they are the only such group to inhabit the heart of a city in which Palestinians form an overwhelming majority.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, 300 metres from this urban front line, is sacred to Jews and Muslims as the burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But, while any internationally agreed peace plan should guarantee access to both religions to worship at the holy site, no such plan has so far provided for the settlers to stay in Hebron.

Yet no settlers have demonstrated so consistently how determined they are, despite the deaths they, like the Palestinians, have suffered in the past four and a half years, to tighten and extend their grip on the territory they occupy. In sardonic deference to its militancy, the Israeli commentator Zvi Bar'el this week described Avraham Avinu as the "Jewish Sadr City".

In 1982, when the then ample house of 17 rooms and four small courtyards was inhabited by 80 members of the extended Sharabati family, Jewish settlers, protected by Israeli military, began building Avraham Avinu right beside their home, in the heart of the old city.

The settlers came to Mohammed's father, then head of the clan and offered him a blank cheque to buy the house. "They said, 'You write the figure you want', but he refused," said Mohammed Sharabati in the local council offices where he works as a clerk. In September 1982, the Israeli administration in the occupied territories demolished six rooms, and four more the year after, to clear the way for settlement construction.

The settlers' repeated claims that the Sharabatis are "terrorists" are not borne out by concrete evidence, beyond what their spokesman, David Wilder, says are "eyewitness" accounts that long-dead members of the family helped in the notorious massacre of 69 Hebron Jews in 1929.

(This is a city haunted by massacres; in 1994, a fanatical Jewish doctor, Baruch Goldstein, machine-gunned to death 29 Muslim worshippers at the tomb.) Mohammed Sharabati is in Fatah and members of the family were arrested for offences such as throwing stones during the first intifada in the late 1980s, but none for militant violence (of which there has been much in Hebron) over the past four and half years.

But Mohammed can remember being detained for a day for obstructing the demolition of his house. "While I was being taken in the Jeep, the settlers were running after me and shouting, 'Do you want to sell the house? If you do you will be released'."

But, consistently, the family refused purchase of the house or, in court cases it brought in the early 1990s, turned down compensation for what had been destroyed, thinking it would legitimise the seizure.

"This is the conflict over the land," Mohammed said. "This is our existence, our history, our civilisation." The family felt, he added, that the Israeli administration was "stealing our history". Soon the settlers resorted to other means. The family says holes were shot in their water tanks, and stones and rubbish thrown into their courtyard.

Steadily, members of the family started to leave and in 1998 the Sharabati brothers' elderly father died, exhausted, they say, by the friction with their neighbours. By the time the second intifada broke out in September 2000, only seven members of the family were in the house.

Then on two days in July, reacting to a Palestinian attack that had killed four soldiers on a road outside Hebron, 200 settlers stormed the house and ransacked it while almost all the family were at a wedding. Tarik, another Sharabati brother who had not gone to the wedding and locked himself in a room, was rescued by the Israeli army who then welded the outside doors shut. The house was closed to the family for the next two and a half years.

After the military decided to allow the Sharabatis back, and took them to inspect the building in February, the settlers demolished part of the house with sledgehammers. Israeli police who arrived were pelted with stones and eggs. By then, many items of glass and pottery, including antiques, had been smashed, and much of the family library was missing, along with furniture. Kitchen cupboards were ripped from the walls. Mufid Sharabati says, hopefully, that the family may bring other Palestinians back to the ghost town that much of the old city now is. There is little sign of it. Only a few shops still open after the years of violence and curfews, and the rest are shuttered, many scrawled with graffiti, including "Death to Arabs".

Former Palestinian stores in the old vegetable market are occupied by settlers, who say the site is now owned by the state of Israel and this is where Jews lived up to 1929. The army have thrown mesh, now filled with settlement rubbish, above the street in the casbah which runs alongside Avraham Avinu to prevent the settlers throwing objects on the Palestinians below, just as some Jewish homes have gratings to protect them from Palestinian stone-throwers.

As soft classical music plays in his cluttered Avraham Avinu office, David Wilder, among the few local settlers who will speak to foreign journalists, insists that despite the present lull in the conflict, nothing fundamental has changed since the army decided to keep the Sharabatis out for "security reasons". He added: "Everybody who knows anything about security knows the situation is going to deteriorate".

Even if the Sharabatis are not going to inflict harm on their Jewish neighbours, he says the settlers fear others will use the house as a passage from the Palestinian side. "At a time we are evicting 9,000 people from their homes [in Gaza] 'for the sake of peace' why should one family be allowed to stay in the middle of this neighbourhood and threaten our lives? We will continue to oppose this and we hope very much we are going to find a way of preventing them from coming back." Can he be specific about how? "No."

By throwing rocks or attacking the building? Mr Wilder, a holstered 9mm pistol at his waist, says the "community leadership" of which he is a part opposes violence. "We don't encourage it and we certainly don't initiate it." But he is less than unequivocal in his condemnation, adding that Avraham Avinu is "not a kibbutz" which takes decisions that bind all its members. "There are things we don't have [something] to say about and things we do. People have different ways of expressing themselves."

The settlers here, he says, are not "pro-violence" but having experienced "tremendous terror" - he cites the fatal shooting of a baby at the height of the intifada is 2001 as an example - they may resort to means "that are not necessarily the ones we would prefer".

Mr Wilder justifies the settlers' presence in Hebron since it was occupied after the 1967 war as a return to the period between the 16th century until the riots of 1929, when there were 800 Jews in an otherwise Arab population of 20,000. "Where we are living now is on top of ruins of [Jewish] people who lived here for more 400 years." Mr Wilder would not for a second apply a similar argument to any of the 900,000 Arabs who fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war of independence.

He says the settlers are not trying to drive the Arab population from Hebron but adds: "If you're asking me, 'Do I cry when an Arab leaves?' the answer is no, any more than I expect they would cry about me leaving."

Mr Wilder expresses enthusiastic support for the army as the settlers' protector, but is angered when it is used "as policemen" against the settlers. Jonathan Boumfeld, a member of a courageous group of Israeli former soldiers who served in Hebron and helped to mount a ground-breaking exhibition about the city last year, "Breaking the Silence", testifies to this dichotomy, albeit from a different standpoint.

He says that on occasions when he was commanding a unit, the settlers "kicked shit out of my soldiers". And he added: "One minute we are protecting them, then we end up fighting them." That was when they would be forced to intervene when Palestinians were attacked or their shops and other premises were broken into by settlers.

Mr Boumfeld says he was on patrol in March 2003 when they found the door of the Sharabati house open and evidence of recent entry. The patrol called army engineers to reweld the door. "The whole neighbourhood turned out and tried to enter the house. Then we formed a human chain and to stop them and they were shouting, 'Nazis, fascists, why are you helping the Arabs?'''

He says settlers repeatedly threw rubbish, including soiled nappies, into the Sharabatis' courtyard, and makes no secret of his antipathy to the Hebron settlers (he mentions the chilling graffiti depicted in last year's exhibition: "Arabs to the Gas Chambers"), or his belief that Israel should not be in the occupied territories.

But he adds: "I think some of these people will fight to the last drop of blood to stay in Hebron. You have here some of the most militant settlers of all. These are not the people of Gush Katif. I have seen them do things not part of the Jewish religion, destroying cemeteries, hitting old men and women, children hitting them with stones."

Since rebuilding started, Mufid Sharabati says the workers were attacked by 25 settlers for 20 minutes with stones, bottles and eggs. Soldiers, he says, were hit, before they forced the settlers down from vantage points.

Israeli soldiers and police are still entrusted with ensuring that the settlers do not get their way and that the Sharabatis return to their home. This is a struggle that may have only just begun.

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