Pressure mounts to evict Jewish settlers

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Pressure intensified within the Israeli government yesterday to clear Jewish settlers out of the tinderbox West Bank town of Hebron, where worshiping Palestinians were massacred at a mosque 10 days ago.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting, seven of the 15 members reportedly spoke out against keeping the Hebron enclaves, where some 400 Jews live among more than 70,000 Arabs, creating what some ministers called needless frictions and security risks. Only two opposed removing the settlers.


But other members did not state their views, and no decision was made. And in the end, there is really only one opinion that counts, that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who did not speak on the matter yesterday but who has opposed any tinkering with settlements, which could be a sure-fire source of domestic divisiveness that would disrupt the peace talks with the Palestinians even more.

Still, the readiness of centrist ministers, and not just those on the left, to evict some of the most ideologically fervent settlers suggests that a national consensus may be building to reconsider policies that go back many years.


How long it may take to arrive at such a consensus, assuming that it is ever reached, is far from clear. But it is plain that senior government officials are talking far differently than they did before a Jewish settler gunned down Muslims at prayer on Feb. 25, and the consequences may ultimately be felt by all 130,000 Israelis living in 140 communities in the territories.

"So long as they are still there, I believe the thing itself creates friction and draws fire," said Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former West Bank army commander who is close to Mr. Rabin, explaining why he wants to end the Jewish presence in Hebron.

Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban said: "To guard the settlers in the midst of the Palestinian population in Hebron, we need to put many forces there."

The ministers were reportedly told by the West Bank commander, Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, that 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers were needed to protect the Jews in Hebron, said to number only 42 families and some unmarried yeshiva students.

Opposing any change in the status quo, Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet warned that it would mean reopening the outline agreement on Palestinian self-rule that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in September.

"If we evacuate Hebron, then why not other places?" Mr. Shetreet said. "There are many places where the friction between Arabs and Jews is great."

Less than a year after Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Middle East war and in defiance of official Labor government policy, Jewish families moved into a hotel in downtown Hebron.

They were led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, an ardent believer in the right and duty of Jews to settle in all the biblical land of Israel, including Hebron, where Abraham is believed to be buried and which is venerated by both Jews and Muslims.


In 1970, while the Labor Party was still in power, Rabbi Levinger and his followers were moved to a new settlement, Kiryat Arba, a town of 5,000 just outside Hebron where the mosque killer, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, had lived.

But in the dead of night in March 1979, dozens of Kiryat Arba residents went back into the heart of Hebron, and they have been there ever since.

They have prevailed through a mixture of active encouragement from Likud governments and passive acceptance by Labor governments like Mr. Rabin's, which may not admire the Hebron settlers' fervor but has not been prepared to tackle it head on.

In recent days, Palestinian officials have insisted on redefining the basis of the peace talks so that the future of Jewish settlements is brought to the bargaining table immediately.

"Settlements are time bombs," Faisal al-Husseini, the Palestinian leader in East Jerusalem, said Saturday.

The PLO said an Israeli move in the past week to arrest, disarm and limit the movements of two dozen of the most outspokenly anti-Arab settlers was a mere token.


U.S. officials have prodded Israel to take stronger security measures and to be more forceful in carrying out those that are in place. Of five people under arrest warrants, only two have been caught, and a senior government official said yesterday that only a few of the 18 people ordered to turn in their army-issue weapons had done so.

As an added complication, the government had a dispute on its hands over a decision by border police to keep away Jewish worshipers from the Western Wall for over an hour Friday to avert possible clashes with Muslims at prayer at Al Aksa Mosque, just above the wall.

The Western Wall is Judaism's holiest site, and the temporary restrictions placed on Jews for what is believed to be the first time since 1967 -- even for safety reasons -- were attacked by Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert.

"It is unacceptable that in order to ensure the right of Muslims to pray, and the right of Muslims to attack Jews, the Jews are removed from the Western Wall," Mr. Olmert said, calling the site "the symbol of our reinstated sovereignty over a united Jerusalem."