October 18, 2018


A Divided Land

By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent

Recent murders in Hebron indicate a new trend in extremism

What the Israeli right likes to call “the battle for the Land of Israel” is in danger of turning into a war of the ultras, Arab extremists vs. Jewish extremists.

The murder of Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, the 63-year-old grandson of the legendary Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, on the night of Aug. 20 in the Hebron Jewish enclave of Tel Rumeida confirmed a new, provocative trend in the strategy of Palestinian terror.

Like the shooting two weeks earlier of Shlomo Liebman and Harel Bin Nun while guarding the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, it was a pinpoint operation, meticulously planned and executed.

Vulnerable, and Zealous Targets

The targets were vulnerable — two young men patrolling at night on the fringe of their isolated community, a veteran rabbi staying behind when most of his neighbors had gone to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Their anonymous assailants knew when and where to hit them, how to get away undetected.

Yitzhar in the north and Tel Rumeida in the south are separated by 50 miles of West Bank rocks and olive groves. What they have in common is that they are both inhabited by disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was outlawed as racist. These are the zealots who erected a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer of 29 Muslim worshippers, and who publicly rejoiced at the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

To the Palestinian Authority, they are fair game. Yasser Arafat rejected all Israeli demands to condemn the killings. His West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, told the settlers that if they didn’t want to be murdered, they’d better get out of Hebron. The Palestinian police are not exactly falling over themselves to catch the perpetrators.

Different Victims

Unlike Hamas bombers blowing themselves up in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, these new-style killers know their society will not suffer Israeli collective punishment. Hebron was sealed for a few days, but tens of thousands of Arab laborers from the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were free to work inside the old green-line border. Business flowed as usual.

The killings seem designed to goad the most fanatical foes of the five-year-old Oslo peace process into a terminal cycle of violence.

“The longer this pattern of attack goes on,” warned Zvi Singer, who covers the settlements for the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot, “the greater the prospect of retaliatory attacks… The security forces must prepare themselves for the worst possible scenario, in which a new Baruch Goldstein might execute his own private act of revenge.”

Harsh Words

Rabbi Ra’anan’s neighbors among the seven families living in mobile homes at Tel Rumeida don’t need much goading. Baruch Marzel, Kahane’s self-proclaimed heir, harangued the Likud Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, as a “murderer” when he visited the site the day after the killing.

When another old warrior, President Ezer Weizman, came to comfort Rabbi Ra’anan’s widow, Marzel branded him an Arab agent. “You are a spy,” he yelled. “You are a danger to the public. You should be locked up in a prison or a hospital.”

This assault on the president was condemned across the political spectrum, from Yossi Sarid of Meretz on the left to the settler Rabbi Benny Elon of Moledet on the right. The Cabinet secretary, Danny Naveh, denounced it as “contemptible.”

Labour spokesmen were not alone in detecting echoes of the “Rabin is a traitor” incitement that ended with Yigal Amir pulling the trigger in a Tel-Aviv square on Nov. 4, 1995.

The Settlers’ Isolation

Marzel’s histrionics highlighted the increasing isolation of the settlers from the Israeli mainstream. Eitan Haber, a veteran military reporter who served as Rabin’s spokesman and adviser, sparked a national debate earlier this month with a Yediot column that began: “A terrible thing has happened to Israeli society in the past decade. The reaction to the death of Israeli citizens in terrorist attacks is a function of political leanings. There’s ‘our’ dead and ‘their’ dead.”

The funeral of the two Yitzhar settlers, he argued, was like a meeting of a secret cult. Even representatives of the right-wing parties stayed away. Half the nation, maybe more, shrugged their shoulders. Their eyes remained dry.

“The reason,” Haber suggested, “is the patronizing air that the settlers have been putting on for years, the arrogant look in their eyes even when they don’t say a word. The way the settlers have projected ‘I’m a better Zionist, a better Jew, than you are’ and “You don’t know anything’ has caused the settlers never to be accepted in people’s hearts… They bury their dead among family only.”

None the less, Binyamin Netanyahu’s government responded to the Ra’anan murder by allocating $10 million shekels ($2.7 million) to replace the Tel Rumeida mobile homes with permanent housing, though it will be many months, if ever, before they are built. The legal process is a minefield, and there is no spare land. Tel Rumeida is in the heart of an Arab suburb.

Yet the prime minister did not yield to settler demands and suspend negotiations with the Palestinians. If media leaks, from Jerusalem and Washington, are to be believed, agreement on the elusive next stage of West Bank withdrawal may even be imminent. The ultras have not won, yet.