In the center of this teeming Muslim city, Danny Hizmi and 50 Jewish settler families live defiantly behind Israeli guards, roadblocks and barbed wire--a clear reminder of the difficult road ahead for a workable Middle East peace.
“If somebody should move from Hebron, it is not the Jews but the Muslims,” said Hizmi, an even-tempered 43-year-old with a black beard and close-cropped white hair.
Not far away, at an office in town, Omran Omar Tamini, a Harvard-educated Palestinian, was just as unequivocal. “The Jews must move out,” said Tamini, a burly 50-year-old. “If they don’t, one day there will be a problem. The crazy people from here and the crazy people from there will cause trouble.”
“We are, of course, open to suggestions,” he added. “But inside the city? No way.”
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s recent return to the West Bank after 27 years in exile--and the Israeli government’s determination to press ahead with negotiations leading to Palestinian elections in October--has been widely welcomed as the beginning of peace in the region.
But the big question mark remains Hebron, for years a hotbed of Palestinian and Israeli radicalism where about 400 Jewish settlers now live surrounded by 80,000 Muslims.
Elsewhere in the occupied territories, Israeli soldiers are being redeployed away from Palestinian population areas. In the Gaza Strip and in Jericho in the West Bank, Palestinians already have begun to govern and police themselves.
No one knows for sure what will happen to the more than 100 self-contained Jewish settler communities in West Bank territory now under Israeli occupation. But the toughest problem facing negotiators will be Hebron, site of the only permanent Jewish settler community surrounded by an Arab city.
Last week, a 17-year-old Jewish girl was shot to death while riding in a car near her home outside Hebron. Her death was blamed on Islamic militants, and it prompted her neighbors in the Jewish settler community to stone Arab homes and block roads near Hebron with burning tires.
But the tradition of violence in Hebron is as ancient as the city itself.
It was here in 1929 that a massacre of 67 Jews by Arabs prompted Jewish residents to abandon their homes in the city. It also was here, five months ago, that Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a right-wing Jewish settler, opened fire on Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs, killing about 30 people.
Since the February massacre, the 2,000-year-old house of worship, built on the site of Abraham’s tomb and shared by Jews and Muslims, has been closed and heavily guarded by Israeli troops.
Now Hebron is a town held together by a large Israeli army presence--and pulled apart by immovable forces centuries old.
The other day, as Danny Hizmi’s 6-year-old daughter, Merav, showed her father a picture of a spaceship she had drawn, the sound of gunfire crackled through the open door of their austere apartment. The noise turned out to be Israeli soldiers firing into the air to chase away an attack by rock-throwing Palestinians.
Even many of the Israeli soldiers guarding this settlement, Hizmi said, think he and his fellow settlers are crazy.
“Sometimes, some of the soldiers forget who their real enemy is,” he said. Hizmi and his wife, who have six young children, have opened a tiny fast-food restaurant for the soldiers, hoping to win them over with cold drinks, snacks and easy credit. “Sometimes we have to remind them we are brothers,” he said.
As Hizmi sees it, the biggest problem in Israeli society today is not security but the lack of a will to fight.
“People just don’t think we should fight for our land,” he said. “But here in Hebron, even my children know we should fight. We cannot live in peace. Not yet.”
Outside the Jewish settlements, the feeling is mutual. There is no dialogue between settlers and Arab residents. “We don’t even shake hands,” one Arab community leader said.
The Jewish settlers rarely venture out of their homes. They order their groceries from a store in another Jewish settlement on the outskirts of Hebron. When they push their children in strollers down the street, they sling automatic weapons across their backs and strap pistols to their hips. Anyone leaving town goes under army escort.
The animosity is palpable. Several dozen Arab vegetable vendors, forced from the town’s old market because of its proximity to the Cave of the Patriarchs, have set up their stands under the punishing sun at an intersection in town. They don’t like it a bit.
“Look at us. We’re stuck here in the middle of the street,” said Raed Rajevi, 23, who was selling cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants. “We’re losing business. The sun is killing us. I mean, is it convenient for you here?”
Another vegetable merchant, Hassan Sabri, added: “It’s all because of these settlers. If they were gone, it would remove the major part of the problem. And as long as they are here, there will never be any safety.”
Nevertheless, the businessmen said they hoped that the arrival of Arafat on the West Bank, and the promise of Palestinian elections and West Bank self-rule, will change Hebron.
“People at first didn’t believe, but we have started to feel something will change now,” Sabri said.
Attempts at imposing peace in Hebron, however, have never had much success.
For nearly three months, a team of 160 white-coated European observers have been stationed here. Unarmed, they travel around town in trucks marked TIPH, for the Temporary International Presence in Hebron.
On occasion, the observers have interrupted Israeli army officers roughly questioning Palestinian suspects. In one case, an Italian observer came across police who had a Palestinian man spread-eagled against a wall. Told by the Israelis to mind his own business, the observer raised his hands and joined the suspect. As a crowd gathered, the angered Israelis told them both to go home.
But the consensus is that the team, for all its good intentions, hasn’t accomplished much. The joke among Arabs in Hebron is that the team “came to watch . . . to watch television.”
The presence of Israeli troops, the continued detention and questioning of Palestinians and the daily sight of heavily armed Jewish settlers on the streets are discouraging for Palestinians.
Merchants complain, for example, that much of Hebron has been without water for days. And they blame the settlers.
“I think they are taking most of the water and giving it to the Israelis,” said Ibrahim Hamdiah, a vegetable seller. “They’re cutting all of us off, just to serve a few dozen Jewish families.”
A few minutes later, at his apartment, Hizmi asked a foreign visitor what he wanted to drink. When the visitor said water, Hizmi joked: “Water? That’s too easy.” A glass of water was quickly produced from the tap.
Like the Muslims in Hebron, the Jewish settlers are angry at the Israeli government for closing down the Cave of the Patriarchs. Until the massacre there, Jews and Muslims had prayed in separate areas of the huge building.
But now no one is allowed near it. Hizmi’s 12-year-old daughter and her friends recently sneaked past the soldiers to read psalms at the so-called “seventh step,” at the corner of the Cave of the Patriarchs. That spot holds special meaning for Jews: It was there that they prayed during the centuries when Muslims kept Jews out of the building. And smoke from the candles of Jewish worshipers still stains the wall.
“The Arabs only allowed us to pray at the seventh step for hundreds of years,” said Hizmi, who works as a Torah scribe in the settler synagogue. “And now this government of ours won’t even let us get near the seventh step. Sometimes, I have to work to control myself.”
Like most Jewish settlers here, Hizmi believes that the Jewish and Muslim residents of Hebron can live together peacefully as they did when he first arrived here seven years ago. That peaceful coexistence changed after the intifada , the Palestinian uprising that began in December, 1987.
“We are very simple people,” Hizmi said. “Nobody thinks about politics. We just came because our patriarchs were here a few thousand years ago. This is an important place for the Jews.”
He added that he thought Israelis and Palestinians could still live side by side.
“Not all of the Arabs are killers,” he said. “I know most of them want to live in peace.”
But, he admitted, “it helps to act a little crazy sometimes, because that’s the language the Arabs understand. That is the way to live in the Middle East. If we want Hebron to be ours, we have to prove to them that we came to live here forever.”
As for the future, Hizmi says he doesn’t worry. “The government of Israel has a problem with its future, but not with my future,” he said. “I know very well what I’m doing in Israel.”