JUNE 3, 1996
In the 1980's the West Bank town of Hebron was the main battle-ground of the Intifadeh. More recently, the eventual withdrawal of Israeli troops from this town was one of the lynch pins of the peace process. With the election of Prime Minister Netanyahu, troop withdrawals are now in question. Charles Krause visits the ancient city of Abraham to gauge the mood for the future of its largely Palestinian residents.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The biblical city of Hebron is likely to be the first test of the new Israeli government's commitment to peace in the Middle East. An ancient city, it's possible to imagine what life was like here two or even three thousand years ago when Muslims and Jews believe Abraham lived and died among Hebron's people. Today Hebron is the largest city on the West Bank, essentially a Palestinian city occupied by the Israeli army since the Six Day Israeli War in 1967. Under terms of the Middle East Peace Accord known as Oslo II, Israel was supposed to withdraw its troops from Hebron last March. But the withdrawal was delayed by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and now Israel's new prime minister-elect, Benjamin Netanyahu, will have to choose between his campaign commitments to protect Jewish settlers on the West Bank and his other campaign commitments to respect Israel's international agreement. Last night, Netanyahu promised to continue negotiating with the Palestinians but didn't mention either the PLO or Hebron. Hanan Ashrawi is a member of the Palestinian Council. Over the weekend at her home in the West Bank City of Ramallah, not far from Hebron, she told us that the Palestinian leadership is worried about Netanyahu's victory.
HANAN ASHRAWI, Palestinian Council: There is a right wing shift in Israel. The whole vein of political discourse is moving to more hard-line politics, more ideological discourse, and at the same time, Netanyahu has made promises which are irreconcilable, I mean, definitely contradictory promises, by promising peace and at the same time promising that he wouldn't be willing to make any concessions or pay the price of peace, including returning land that was occupied or the issue of Jerusalem, issue of settlements, and Palestinian statehood, so that is going to be difficult, but we distinguish between campaign rhetoric and the very easy statements that come out when you're in opposition as opposed to being in a position of authority and responsibility.
CHARLES KRAUSE: What makes Hebron such a difficult and dangerous place is its long history of conflict and violence. Muslims and Jews have literally been at each other's throats for centuries, but the hatred intensified after the '67 War, and in many ways, Hebron is today a microcosm of the Middle East conflict. Occupied by the Israeli army, it is a city filled with extremists on both sides, fundamentalist Jews who believe the West Bank, which they call Judea and Sumeria, must remain a part of Israel. On the other side is Hamas, the extreme fundamentalist Muslim group which last February and March carried out four deadly suicide bombings inside Israel. More than 60 Israelis, many of them women and children, were killed, contributing to the sense of insecurity which led to Netanyahu's victory. Two of the four suicide bombers came from the Alpahwar Refugee Camp located on the outskirts of Hebron, which we visited this weekend. It's a place where hundreds of Palestinian refugee families have been left to fester for generations without work and without hope, nursing grievances and hatred that's easily exploited by Muslim fundamentalists. This rubble was once the home of one of the suicide bombers, Ibraham Sarahweh. To the Israelis, he was a terrorist, so they demolished the family home in retribution. But to Ibraham's mother, Miriam, who's been living in a tent near the rubble since her home was destroyed, and to many of the Palestinian families who live near by. Ibraham Sarahweh was a martyr who died for the sake of his people.
MIRIAM SARAHWEH: (speaking through interpreter) I think what my son did was right. They started this. They are against the Palestinians. They threw us from the land in 1948. They say we are terrorists, but they are terrorists, and we have the right to defend ourselves.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Within the Palestinian context, Mrs. Sarahweh is a moderate. She says she'd accept an independent Palestinian state next to a sovereign and independent Israel. But it's not difficult to find teen-age boys in Hebron about her son's age who threw stones at Israeli troops during the Intifada in the late 80's and who say they'll fight again when the time comes.
MOHAMAD KHAFEEB (speaking through interpreter) The duty of Hamas is to drive away the occupants. Israelis claim the Hamas kills innocent people, but it is the Jews who kill innocent people. They killed innocent people in a mosque.
TAWFIQ ABU-HALAWEH: (speaking through interpreter) When the Islamic ruler comes, everybody will fight. Nobody will stay in his home, so we're waiting for this ruler to come. If there comes an Islamic ruler, I will absolutely fight for the homeland.
ZAKI ABU MAYALEH: (speaking through interpreter) This whole land is Palestine, not just the West Bank, but everywhere, including cities like Jafa and Tel Aviv. The Jews aren't going to leave these places, these Islamic lands. So, no, there will never been peace and the fight will continue.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Mustafa Abdel Nabi Natshe is Hebron's mayor. He's an ally of Yasser Arafat's, and he worries that Hebron will explode if Netanyahu delays or refuses to comply with the Oslo II agreement.
MUSTAFA ABDEL NABI NATSHE, Mayor, Hebron: In the case, the, uh--there was no withdrawal in the coming future, the people will be frustrated, and so the people will react in their own way to achieve their rights.
CHARLES KRAUSE: I assume that what you mean is there could be violence.
MUSTAFA ABDEL NABI NATSHE: Of course, it will--maybe a return to Intifada again 'cause if one who is in a desperate situation, he can behave in a way to achieve his right because we wait, we wait and wait. All the Palestinian cities has been liberated, the Israeli army withdraw, why not on Hebron?
CHARLES KRAUSE: No place better symbolizes the problems Netanyahu may have proceeding with the withdrawal than the Tomb of the Patriarchs, this mosque and synagogue where Muslims and Jews believe Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried. It was here two years ago that an American Jewish fundamentalist named Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims while they were praying, a deliberate attempt to polarize the situation in Hebron and to stop the peace process. Some four to five hundred Jewish settlers live in the heart of Hebron guarded by several thousand Israeli soldiers. Many of the settlers are fundamentalists like Goldstein, who would rather die than leave a city they consider holy. This year, many of the West Bank settlers feared that Shimon Peres would sacrifice their right to stay in Hebron and other cities on the West Bank as part of a comprehensive peace agreement with the PLO. Not surprisingly, the settlers voted overwhelmingly against Peres and for Netanyahu. And in what was a very close election, Israel's ultra-religious vote and the settlers provided Netanyahu's margin of victory. Reneging on his promises to them so soon after the election will clearly be politically difficult. Noam Arnon is the official spokesman and fund-raiser for Hebron's Betadasas settlers. We asked him if he expects Netanyahu to keep IDF, Israeli Defense Force soldiers in the city.
NOAM ARNON, Settler Spokesman: Of course, Mr. Netanyahu promised, and he got a mandate from the people that the responsibility for security all over the country should remain in the hands of the IDF, and it will remain so.
CHARLES KRAUSE: At the same time, he also promised that he would comply with the Oslo II Agreement. How is he going to do both?
NOAM ARNON: Well, this is a problem, but I'm sure he's not going to do any step that will be dangerous to the security, and he will fulfill the agreement as long as it does not impact against security.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Will a withdrawal effect the lives of people living here?
NOAM ARNON: Of course. About 80 percent of this city belonged to Hamas. Nobody can expect that the IDF will leave and the city will be in the hands of the Hamas, which will endanger the whole country. It's impossible. Here we want to live in peace. We, we want to live in peace with the Arabs here, and I'm sure most of the normal people in the world will support us.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But you want to live at peace, but at the same time you're saying you oppose the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from here?
NOAM ARNON: Of course, because peace is dependent on existence of IDF here in all the city of Hebron. This is the condition for peace.
CHARLES KRAUSE: And in a sense, Arnon is right. The settlers are viewed as part of an unwelcome occupation force in Hebron. Even Hanan Ashrawi says that the settlers are hated by the Palestinians who surround them.
HANAN ASHRAWI: If they move the settlers, there will be no cause to worry or to fear. But you plant in the heart of a Palestinian city, umm, one of the most extremist communities and you give them unlimited power over, you know, the power of life and death over Palestinians and they're armed in the middle of a civilian population, and you expect to have, uh, tranquility and peace and neighborly relations. It's not going to work. The real problem is the violation of imposing settlers on Hebron, not the nature or the make-up of the population of Hebron.
CHARLES KRAUSE: How do you respond to Israeli concerns that Hebron is a kind of nest of terrorist activity?
HANAN ASHRAWI: That's a very, very convenient argument. They've used it for everything, I mean, the whole issue. It's--Likud and Israeli politics in general have been based on fear tactics. Suicide bombings and violence do not emerge from a vacuum, and you cannot control them by repression. The real way of dealing with suicide bombings, with violence, is not to allow, not to create and feed an atmosphere of violence, of discontent, of despair, of grievances, of victimization.
CHARLES KRAUSE: For the Palestinians and Jews who live in Hebron, for Israel's next prime minister, for the PLO, and for the United States, which is committed to the peace process, Hebron may prove to be not only an important first step, it may also prove to be an extremely difficult one.