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Holding the Line in Hebron
By Moshe Dann
The road to Hebron is deceptively quiet and tranquil. Orchards and vineyards wait patiently for spring. On the hillside men are ploughing their rain-soaked fields with horses or donkeys. Groups of children walk back from school along the road laughing and sparring with each other. Wary Israeli drivers pray they won’t start throwing stones.
Concrete barriers slow drivers who must weave between them. Most of the vehicles are IDF jeeps, heavy trucks and Palestinian taxis. Cars with Palestinian license plates speed past, often testing the nerve of oncoming traffic. There are few private Israeli cars on the road; mine was one of them.
South of Gush Etzion, the road passes hot spots: the El Arrub refugee camp and Beit Omar. These villages are particularly dangerous because they are directly on the highway. – ‘only a stone’s throw away.’
With an eye on the hilltops from where vehicles are frequently attacked, I pass the place where Dr. Gillis was murdered on his way home in Rosh Tsurim. Halhoul looms in the distance.
Large Arab homes are scattered along the landscape, and small clusters of buildings connecting villages full of new construction. But many dirt access roads leading from the main highway to the villages are blocked by mounds of earth, boulders and chunks of concrete. The IDF has closed off these roads to terrorists trying to gain access or escape from the highway.
After the turn off to the community of Harsina (Ramat Mamre), is the small army camp called Basalt. It was built in 1992 at the beginning of Rabin’s term of office to separate Harsina from Kyriat Arba – less than a kilometer away -- and prevent the two communities from building physical links between them.
Lt. Col. Doron Mor Yosef, the base commander, is a 31- year old career officer from Tel Aviv and a veteran of numerous actions. He and his Nahal battalion have been at this camp for three months. They had been previously stationed near the Kalandia refugee camp near Ramallah.
Mor Yosef describes the dramatic change in the situation during the last few months. “Before we came there were many daily attacks on civilians. Today there are only a few a week. We know where they are coming from and we are dealing with them,” he says with determination.
He speaks sparsely, with a clear sense of what needs to be done and his mission. Since the assassination of cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi, the army has adopted a more ‘get-tough’ policy. And it seems to be paying off – at least in the Hebron area.
The army is often on the road, engaging in ambushes and hot pursuit after suspected terrorists. But Mor Yosef also believes in diplomacy. After many attacks launched from Beit Omar, for example, the village was blockaded for several days. The villagers complained to Mor Yosef who replied to them directly and simply, “If we can’t drive on our roads, you won’t drive on yours. Stop the attacks and we’ll open the roads.”
After several days of quiet, the roads were opened. But nothing lasts, and after a few weeks the whole process is repeated over again. It is a test of wills.
Interviews with soldiers at this base revealed a depth of commitment to the role of the IDF, especially in Hebron. Even those who described themselves as “leftists,” or “centrists” believed that the IDF was doing its best to and should protect the civilian population under their authority. They were also deeply offended by politicians and the media who criticized their efforts.
“We’re not here to hurt any innocent people,” says Alon, a young soldier from the center of the country, six months away from finishing his tour of duty, “but when they attack us with rocks, bombs and guns, we have to respond. And when we go after them, we are careful not to injure others.”
The other factor keeping the city of Hebron itself quiet is Palestinian Authority head of West Bank security Jabril Rajoub. He signed an agreement with the IDF to stop shooting at Jews inside Hebron in return for no IDF incursions. Both sides have upheld the agreement –more or less
IDF personnel did not comment directly on the reasons for Rajoub’s adherence to this agreement. Some speculate that he is trying to demonstrate that he can exercise control and that he will honor his commitments. This may project him as a candidate to head the Palestinian Authority and a future state.
It also serves Israeli interests, as well as those of Hebron’s Arab residents. It is a very delicate and dangerous balance.
On the way back to Jerusalem at the end of the day just before sunset, an elderly Israeli couple was wounded when rocks and firebombs were thrown at their car near the Arab village of Kfar Sair, an Islamic militant stronghold. Their windshield was smashed and IDF medics treated them at the scene, but they continued on their way. The army stayed, searching the area, and then entering the village to look for the attackers.
From a hilltop next to an ancient archeological site overlooking the village several IDF armored personal carriers lumber down the dirt road and into the village. The sound of sporadic gunfire echoes across the valley as reports and instructions crackle over the army radio. Huge clouds darken the sky as dusk settles on the village while several jeeps full of soldiers wait patiently for their next instructions.
On call from dawn until well after midnight, their lives on the line, these guardians of our country fulfill their unseen tasks with few rewards except the knowledge that we all depend on them.
In Hebron another IDF unit straddles the Jewish neighborhoods of Beit Hadassah, The Shavei Hevron Yeshiva and Avraham Avinu, home to 50 families; they handle the situation inside Hebron. The main street that goes from Machpelah, the Second Temple period building that marks the burial site of Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs, to Beit Hadassah is nearly empty. Arabs in yellow Mercedes taxis, donkey and horse drawn wagons and on foot travel from one part of the PA-controlled city to the other, along with soldiers on patrol and Jewish residents. At times, the streets are volatile, and looking up at the surrounding hills one has the feeling of vulnerability. Although there is quiet at the moment, a lone sniper could ignite this tinderbox of tensions and the army is often caught in the midst of a difficult situation.
Soldiers are exposed to attacks from Arabs traveling within spitting distance from Jewish homes. At night, IDF guard posts are prime targets for firebombs and snipers. During the day, a grenade or knife-wielding terrorist is now an uncommon occurrence, thanks to a strong IDF response.
The Jewish community has shown their appreciation by providing food and hot drinks to the soldiers on guard and in improvised “coffee houses.” Relations between the IDF and Jewish residents are, on the whole, excellent, says David Wilder, spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community.
“The problem is the police,” he says. “Plainclothes policeman harass and intimidate us. We feel that the police are out to get us. They arrest kids and women, interrogate them and press charges, only to have a judge throw the whole thing out. We just don’t understand why – after all we have been through -- our own police treat us as enemies.”
Orit Struck, another community spokesman, lives in Avraham Avinu with her 11 children. She complained that a last week a young Arab woman who was apprehended on her was to carry out an attack was going to be released by the police because she had not yet injured anyone. “They are sending her home so that she can try again? It’s absurd.”
Wilder feels the temporary lull in violence can be shattered at any time. “As long as our security depends on Rajoub, I’m very uncomfortable,” he says. “The only permanent solution is for the IDF to take back the hills. Otherwise, we’re just sitting ducks.”
In an awkward way, the IDF and the Jewish residents of Hebron are in a similar position. Both feel under attack, and are vulnerable. Thrown together by circumstances, they are strange bedfellows. The residents are all religious and hold strongly right-wing views. The soldiers are mostly secular and left-wing, or at least centrists (whatever that means). Yet they have a common bond -- the protection of Jews who live in this area.
“As long as this is what the government decides,” says Yossi, driver of a jeep, “we will do our job as best we can. We are here to protect and defend Am Yisrael,” he says, slumped in his jeep. He looks tired and like he could use a good hot plate of chicken soup. And in his eyes, there is a measure of us all."
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