Editorial: The Heart of Madness

On August 20, close to midnight, the elderly Rabbi Shlomoh Ra'anan was stabbed to death in his mobile home on Tel Rumeida in the southern part of Hebron. Seven of the most extreme settler families – including leaders of Kach, an outlawed, racist group – live on the tel, site of the ancient city of Hebron. Ra'anan had been there several years. He was on record as saying he wanted to "settle in the most difficult place." The identity of his killers is still unknown. Israel responded to the killing with a curfew on all 18,000 Palestinians living in the Israeli-controlled territory of H1. It also imposed a hermetic blockade on the Palestinian-controlled part of the city, known as H2, where 150,000 live. The Israelis offered a unique explanation for the curfew on H1: to protect the Palestinians from the wrath of the 400 settlers living there. By enforcing the 11-day curfew, the authorities gave the settlers a green light to go on a wrecking spree. Such hooliganism is nothing new. With or without a Jewish victim, the Hebron settlers have always prevailed, using their own code of rules and privileges. They ignore the army and the police. If an officer doesn't do as the settlers want, they label him a Nazi and refuse to have anything to do with him. They are used to getting their way. We witnessed an egregious example four years ago, after Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque. Tentative and temporary measures were taken against the settlers, but soon they were roaming free. Hebron's Arabs, on the other hand, were shut up in their houses for a month.

During the most recent curfew, Israel erected twenty new checkpoints to ensure that Palestinians kept off the streets. The settlers were the kings of H1. It would occur to no one, of course, to put them under curfew "for their protection". There were several Palestinian casualties during the curfew. Two babies died in medical emergencies because soldiers would not let their families cross over to the hospital in H2. On August 23, Kusai Tamimi, aged three months, died of a fever and lung failure. In another case, 24-year-old Fadua al Adam, who was in labor, arrived at the checkpoint. Israeli soldiers refused to let her through. She gave birth in her car and the baby died. Were these people "victims of overprotection"? One Israeli pundit asked. "How would Israelis react if a Jewish settler lost her baby at a Palestinian checkpoint?"

Amid these tragedies and several violent clashes, in which youngsters from H2 stoned soldiers and settlers in H1, Israeli politicians made pilgrimages to console the fanatics on Tel Rumeida. President Ezer Weizman, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all ducked their heads into waves of verbal abuse from the settlers. At the same time the Treasury promised ten million shekels to replace the seven mobile homes with proper houses. Since 1984, when the national-unity government first allowed settlers to live on Tel Rumeida, they have never been permitted to build. The new decision is a major concession to these fanatics, whose extremism is criticized even by the right-wing settlers' movement, Gush Emunim.

The guiding concept at Oslo, after the bloody years of the intifada, was to create a functional separation between Israelis and Palestinians. One might think this impossible, given that 140,000 settlers (not counting those in East Jerusalem) live amid a million West Bank Palestinians. Yet Oslo does not provide for the evacuation of a single settlement. To ensure strict separation, by-pass roads have been built, costing millions. They have given rise to a delusion that two hostile worlds could exist side by side. In Hebron this principle was violated. Here the government has tolerated a small group of settlers in the midst of a large Arab population. Even the massacre by Baruch Goldstein brought no change. The Hebron agreement, signed in January, 1997, allowed Israel to keep the old city, which contains the most hard-line, fanatical settlers of all. Here, then, is a constant and inevitable flashpoint, ready to flare whenever one side or the other wants to disturb the so-called peace process. The fact is, separation does not keep the peace anywhere in the West Bank, where five settlers have been killed since April. If the Palestinians refuse (and rightly!) to tolerate the settlers in their midst, how can they agree to the Jewish fanatics of Hebron, who have created their own little state within a territory within a state? In Challenge 40 1996 ("Hebron: En Route to Catastrophe"), we warned: "As soon as redeployment occurs, the facts on the ground will take over. The agreement will leave a deep festering resentment on the Palestinian side. And on the Jewish side in Hebron there are so many fanatics, released murderers, demagogues, and inciters - so many apostles of Baruch Goldstein - that the situation is bound to explode. The strange thing is, everybody knows this. The two sides walk toward the day of redeployment pulled by a force which they cannot evade – as if to a date with the executioner." The Hebron agreement is the only step that Netanyahu has taken till now within the framework of Oslo. Two years later, the outlook is bleak. It has finally registered on the Palestinians that when the final status talks end, in May 1999, they will only have 40% of their land at the most. The pro-Oslo circles in Israel are gloomy too. They prefer to blame Netanyahu rather than face the fact that the deal was impossible from the start. No party has the capability or the will, at this stage, to construct a peace that both sides will want to keep. The Palestinians are paying the immediate price, but it is the Israelis who will receive, in time, the final bill.