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Life in Hebron's cage of security

Zealous Jewish settlers here spurn the peace accord, reject the idea of a `Palestinian people,' and have no plans to leave what they consider sacred ground

BARUCH BEN-YACOV'S blue eyes light up as he points to a photograph that shows him, in a Jewish custom, dancing arm-in-arm at his wedding with another man. His partner is imposing looking, with dark hair and a warm smile.

``He was the most loved man in this community,'' says Mr. Ben-Yacov, choking with emotion as his Russian immigrant wife, Miriam, looks over his shoulder.

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The man is Baruch Goldstein, who shocked the world on Feb. 25 this year when he opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs - or Abraham's Mosque as it is known to Muslims - killing 29 people.

Mr. Goldstein is rejected by most Jews. But to the religious Zionist community who in 1979 occupied Beit Hadassah, an abandoned hospital built by philanthropic Jews, he has acquired the status of a near-saint.

The sense of reverence the name Goldstein evokes in this isolated community of Jewish fundamentalists and radicals reflects their degree of isolation.

But it also highlights the problem such zealots pose to an Israeli government striving to implement an accord based on the return of occupied land to the Palestinians while maintaining the security of 120,000 Jewish settlers who have moved to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Jewish community of Hebron, widely regarded - along with the 5,000 or so settlers at Kiryat Arba adjoining the town - as the most extreme of the Jewish settlements, perceives itself as the last bulwark against an encroaching Palestinian state aided by a weak Israeli government.

Under the beleaguered Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Israeli troops are scheduled to withdraw from the towns and cities of the occupied territories once Palestinian elections are held.

But the status and security of the Jewish settlements on land earmarked for Palestinian self-rule are increasingly uncertain as the financial and human cost of maintaining them threatens to undermine the 15-month-old agreement on Palestinian self-rule.

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Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has acknowledged the problem but so far has failed to come up with a solution. As the number of young Israeli soldiers dying in defense of the settlements increases, Israeli public opinion is starting to turn against the settlers.

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority demands that the settlements be removed, but has agreed that they must be protected until final status talks - due to begin in May 1996 - resolve their future.

One of the world's oldest cities and the second-holiest site for Jews, Hebron is a crucible of conflict that is destined to play a pivotal role in the unfolding Palestinian-Israeli saga.

Ben-Yacov, a converted Jew who emigrated to Israel 10 years ago from New York, is a member of a community of about 450 Orthodox Jews who live in a heavily guarded complex in the center of this town of about 90,000 Palestinians located 30 miles south of Jerusalem.

Kiryat Arba, a settlement of about 5,000 Jews on the outskirts of Hebron, is regarded as the spiritual capital of the West Bank settler movement. It was created in Hebron in 1968 when Rabbi Moshe Levinger took over an Arab hotel in defiance of an Israeli government ban on Jews settling in the town.

Nine years later, his wife, Miriam Levinger, smuggled a group of women and children into the dilapidated Beit Hadassah building in the heart of the ruined Jewish quarter and refused to move.

Commemorative museum

Beit Hadassah has been converted into family apartments and houses a museum commemmorating the 63 Jews killed by Arabs in the 1929 riots that swept Palestine and drove the Jews from Hebron for nearly 40 years after a 2,000-year presence.

The community now lives in a cage of security, protected by Israeli soldiers, fences, and blockades to keep them apart from their Palestinian neighbors whose resentment of the Jewish settlers has reached unprecedented levels since the Goldstein massacre.

``I don't see any solution on a rational basis,'' says Shalom Horowitz, the spiritual leader of Hebron's Jewish community.

Mr. Horowitz, who emigrated to Israel from the US with his wife nearly 40 years ago, dismissed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a hand-over to ``the Arabs.''

``The peace settlement will not work,'' he says. ``Only superhuman intervention can save [it].

``God has brought us back to the land and defeated the enemy before in such a miraculous way.... I believe there will be another miracle,'' says Horowitz, the proud father of seven children who have also settled on occupied land.

But he does not rule out the possibility that infighting among Jews could lead to another period of exile. ``The worst thing that I could imagine would be a civil war among Jews,'' he says.

Horowitz is generous to his own kind and a deeply religious man. ``Leaving Hebron would be an admission that the whole land belongs to the Arabs,'' says Horowitz, who rejects the use of ``Palestinian'' to describe the occupants of the West Bank.

``There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,'' he says. ``Before 1948, it was unthinkable that anyone other than the Jews would go to Palestine ... the whole world accepted this.

``The Arabs have a right to be here if they accept our presence and our sovereignty,'' he adds, and then translates a Hebrew slogan daubed on a deserted Palestinian home across the street.

``Being a resident of Hebron is being a Jew without being ashamed,'' the slogan says.

Ben-Yacov explains: ``Because of our past and the various persecutions, many Jews are no longer proud to be Jews.

``If there is one city in Israel where Jews are proud to be Jews, it is here in Hebron,'' he says walking to the Machpelah cave through the heavily guarded corridor where several settlers have been attacked in the past.

The muezzin's call

As the settlers make their way to prayer, the valley resounds with the haunting sound of Muslims calling the faithful to prayer.

``It's a disgrace ... the noise imposes on my sanity,'' says Yitzhak Herskovitz, an immigrant settler from the US.

The cave is the spiritual center of the town where Abraham - the patriarch of the Jews - is said to be buried. It is also a holy site for Muslims, who barred Jews from entering for hundreds of years.

When the cave reopened earlier this month, separate entrances were constructed for the Jewish and Muslim worshipers and numbers are strictly limited to 300 Jews and 450 Muslims at a time.

Jewish visitors join a line to hand in their side arms and automatic weapons before entering the holy site through metal detectors, and Muslim worshipers enter through a back entrance guarded by armed Israeli soldiers.

Inside the Jewish section of the holy site, protected from the elements by a canopy of waterproof cloth, Mr. Herskovitz is distracted from his prayers.

``They have given the main hall to the Arabs. We should have had the whole temple. It is our forefathers who are buried here. The Arabs should be kept on the roof,'' Herskovitz says.

On an adjoining hill, Baruch Marzel, leader of the extremist Jewish movement Kach, is plotting his next move from a trailer home where he is living under house arrest after a six-month period of detention.

Although his home is mobile, he plans to stay. ``It will be no use moving the Jews out of Hebron,'' he says, ``because they will still come to see the holy sites.''

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