Friday, April 6, 2012

One swallow does not make a spring

Pesach in Hebron 44 years ago - not long after Israel's army conquered this city during the war which lasted six days, and the Israeli military government was still at its beginning, and there were those who still spoke seriously about "The Liberal Occupation". A group calling themselves "settlers" (a new concept at the time)  arrived in Hebron, headed by Rabbi Moshe Levinger. They set themselves up at the city's Park Hotel, ostensibly in order to celebrate the Passover and in fact to embark on the creation of "accomplished facts".

The military governor predicted that a constant focus of dangerous tensions would be created in the city placed under his authority and wanted to immediately evict the settlers from the city, which under the military regulations he had the authority to do. But the senior minister Yigal Allon came to visit , as did other ministers  and Knesset Members, congratulating and encouraging the settlers.

And ultimately a "compromise" was proclaimed – the first of very many – and Levinger and followers remained on the scene. A large parcel of land east of Hebron was confiscated from the Palestinian inhabitants, on which Kiryat Arba was established. But the settlers were not content with this and stridently demanded to get also a foothold in the heart of the Arab city. Their wives went out and took possession of the Hadassah House, and the government decided that it was not nice to evict women and therefore did not evict them. And then the army, on humanitarian grounds, allowed the husbands to visit their wives in the house they occupied, and somehow the soldiers failed to notice that the  visitors did not leave but remained to take up residence in the house.

And thereafter the settlers took over one more house and one more, and yet  another and another. Sometimes they claimed to have purchased a house from its owner via all sorts of convoluted deals, involving many brokers and go-betweens and "straw men". And sometimes it was suddenly discovered that a certain house had belonged to a certain Jew a hundred years ago, which of course in the here and now made it a settler property. And sometimes a house was found to be abandoned and evidently of no use to its Palestinian owners.  And sometimes the residents of a nearby house were harassed and their life made into hell until the house had become abandoned. And in one particularly amusing episode some very fat settlers held a very spirited dance for the  Purim Holiday and stamped their feet on the thin floor and suddenly it broke and one of them fell through into the Palestinian shop on the floor below. He was not badly hurt, but when the Palestinian merchant arrived in the morning he found his shop to have already become property of the settlers.

And there was the incident in which the army occupied the central bus station of Hebron and moved Palestinians elsewhere and made of it a military camp, as was needed due to urgent security considerations. Then came the settlers and set up tents on the site of the Central Bus Station, and afterwards the soldiers left and the settlers were given possession of the lot and energetically started building.

After the terrible terrorist attack in which Palestinians shot and killed six settlers, the army was apprehensive of further attacks. Therefore, for the protection of the settlers the army destroyed several Palestinian buildings and handed the lots where they had stood to the settlers, for their greater security.  And after the terrible terrorist attack in which settler Baruch Goldstein shot and killed 29 Palestinians during their prayer, the army was apprehensive of Palestinians retaliating against the settlers. Therefore, for the protection of the settlers the army closed down main street, Shuhada Street, and gave it over to the settlers' exclusive possession and banned Palestinians (or leftist Israelis) from walking on it.

When Binyamin Netanyahu , on his first term as Prime Minister, signed the Hebron Agreement in January 1997, the City of Hebron was divided into a Palestinian Zone and an Israeli one. In the Israeli Zone lived a few hundred Israeli settlers and tens of thousands of Palestinians, but the settlers did all in their power - and their power  was considerable  - to redress the demographic balance. Only Palestinians with great determination and tremendous stamina remained in the area where there were many days of curfew and commerce broke down and the shops were empty and any (Palestinian) passerby was liable to be subjected to stringent and repeated security searches by patrolling soldiers and assaults by adult settlers on the street and streams of urine from settler children on the balconies to the indulgent laughter of their parents.

Meanwhile, the Hebron settlers gave the inspiration to many other settlers venturing north and south and east and west and creating more and more facts on the ground and emulating the Hebron methods in many other locations.

And now, in April 2012, it seemed as if time turned back to the starting point. Hebron settlers taking over a house and creating yet another accomplished fact. And this time their leader is Shlomo Levinger, son of Rabbi Moshe. And again army commanders warn of increasing tensions and the creation of a new a focus of dangerous  friction. And again a parade of ministers and Knesset Members go on a pilgrimage to the spot to congratulate and encourage the settlers. And again ...

And here, just this week, the army took the action which was not taken then.  By the government which sends school kids to Jewish Heritage tours to  Hebron and threatens theaters with dire financial consequences if they dare to refrain from performing at Kiryat Arba's "Hall of Culture". In this unlikely government, the Minister of Defense - and with the backing of the Prime Minister, so it seems – made a show of determination and of adherence to the rule of law. 

And it turned out that the evacuation was over in five minutes, without incident, and the building was emptied and sealed. Admittedly, we were all surprised.

Had this happened 44 years ago, it might have been a historic event, a strategic change. Had the settlers not been allowed to establish themselves in Hebron and spread from there in all directions, the entire situation between Israelis and Palestinians today would be totally different. The occupation would have ended long ago and the State of Israel and the State of Palestine would have been living in peace with each other by now.

In the actual State of Israel in April 2012, will a single manifestation of   determination and the removal of one group of settlers from one particular  house turn out to be the harbinger of things to come? Not likely, and not only because the evacuation of a single house in Hebron was immediately "counterbalanced" by providing "legalization" to three "settlement outposts" which had been hitherto   considered to be illegal, and the issuing of tenders for constructing hundreds of new housing units in the famous (or notorious) Har Homa settlement-neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Most likely, the evacuation of this Hebron house would remain a single isolated incident in the annals of Binyamin Netanyahu's second cabinet. In order for once to make a good impression on the U.S. Government and the Quartet, after  telegrams  began to arrive from Israeli ambassadors worldwide clamoring about the public relations damage caused by this one house. Or because of the intrigues of Ehud Barak, a Defense Minister whose political future is behind him and who still harbors pipe dreams of becoming once again "the center-left  leader." Or because Netanyahu needs to maintain Barak as the "moderate" face which the government can show to the world. Because all kinds of momentary and opportunistic considerations.

Still, the lesson was learned and the precedent was created, and it just might  have considerable influence at some future time, with a different government and different conditions in Israel and the region and the world. If you are really determined to evacuate them, the formidable settlers may turn out to be paper tigers. If you really want to do it, it's possible.