Settlers call slain leader a traitor But his assassination was wrong, say those in West Bank enclave


KIRYAT ARBA, Occupied West Bank -- "He was a traitor," settler Arieh Dolinsky said yesterday of his slain prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

"I wouldn't be sorry if he would die a natural death," he said. Then he added, "But it was wrong to shoot him."

Mr. Dolinsky, 47, expressed the feelings of many residents of this community. Kiryat Arba is perched on a hill overlooking the ancient West Bank city of Hebron. It is also one of the most militant Jewish settlements in the parts of the West Bank that Israel is about to share with the Palestinian authority, under an agreement Mr. Rabin signed with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

This was the territory that the prime minister's assassin thought should forever remain under Israel's control. Yigal Amir, the Israeli who confessed to slaying Mr. Rabin, used to organize week-end trips to the Jewish settlement that is in the heart of Hebron -- the better to register his disapproval of the government.

The settlers of Kiryat Arba have been among the leaders of protests against Mr. Rabin, for they considered this land theirs from God. Mr. Rabin, in turn, had bitterly criticized the settlers. Even after his death, few of them had kind things to say about the assassinated prime minister.

"Anyone who makes a coalition with the Arabs against the Jewish people is a traitor," Mr. Dolinsky said.

Kiryat Arba had celebrated Baruch Goldstein, who last year gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

But killing Arabs in Hebron is one thing. There has been much bloodshed in Hebron between Jews and Arabs; they are the enemy. Killing a Jew is another matter, the settlers suggested.

Residents spoke disdainfully of four settlers who reportedly celebrated Mr. Rabin's assassination on Saturday night.

By noon yesterday, there were no celebrations.

At the small Jewish compound in downtown Hebron, Nahema Mushnik, 40, said she was confused by events.

"We're sorry a Jew died, but it may be for the good," she said hopefully.

Mrs. Mushnik said she feared Mr. Rabin's government had wanted to evacuate her group from the city, which is to be handed over to the Palestinians early next year. "Maybe his death will prevent our expulsion," she said.

Yet, it seemed more people were afraid that Mr. Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, will make bigger concessions in his drive to achieve peace.

Mr. Rabin's assassin "caused unimaginable damage," Kiryat Arba Mayor Zvi Katsover said in an interview. "He murdered our last defender in the Cabinet. Mr. Rabin was the one who didn't hurry to make concessions."

"Rabin had restraints, but Peres will run amok, endangering us," said settler Snir Mizrahi, 26.

The settlers have been struggling to win public support for their campaign against the planned withdrawals in the West Bank. They fear that Mr. Rabin's assassination could provoke a backlash.

Yisrael Harel, a leader of the Council of Settlers in the West Bank, said the assassination may cost the settlers public support.

"All our public campaign will lose its momentum and may lose its moral value," he said.

Israelis are split evenly between supporters and opponents of the peace process. Settlers said yesterday that they fear clashes between left- and right-wing extremists would endanger the state.

"We came here to build our home. But if we fight each other, we may find ourselves back in the diaspora," said Shimon Shaubi, 45.

Walking through an alley in Hebron's Orthodox Jewish compound, Batya Cohen, 34, said God probably wanted Mr. Rabin to lead Israel; otherwise, he would not have been prime minister.

"It was a terrible mistake to eliminate him by murder. If God wanted to kill him, he would have found other means to do so," she said.

But Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, said he understood the assassin's motives.

The government, he said, lacks the country's backing "to hand the land of Israel to the enemy," he said. "It is bringing about the establishment of a terrorist [Palestinian] state, allowing tens of thousands of terrorists into the country, and creating a grave danger. When it presses, and presses more, the explosion is inevitable."

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