Claiming they have been
abandoned by Israel's government and determined to rid the
West Bank of Arabs, vigilante Jewish settlers are shooting and
beating Palestinians, stealing and destroying their property
and poisoning and diverting their water supplies, Israeli and
Palestinian officials say.
While Jewish extremists have lashed out
before, most notoriously in 1994 when a U.S. settler, Baruch
Goldstein, gunned down 29 Arabs in a nearby mosque, never
before have they struck with such frequency, Israeli officials
say. And nowhere has the violence been as intense as in this
disputed city, believed to be the burial place of the biblical
Nearly 450 right-wing Jews, all of whom
are armed and claim a biblical right to the land, live here
among 120,000 Palestinians. Many, like Shapiro and his
colleagues, are ready to strike at any time.
Israeli and U.S. officials have warned
Sharon that if the violence against Palestinian civilians
increases, it could enflame already high emotions and lead the
entire region into war.
"It only takes a spark to light a very
big fire here," says Yossi Sarid, a left-wing Israeli
opposition leader. "This is a city that is cursed."
'A time bomb'
Since the start of the latest surge of
violence in Israel a year ago this month, at least 119
Palestinians have been killed by Israeli civilians in the West
Bank and Gaza, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights
group that has been sympathetic to the Palestinians' plight.
Hundreds of others have been hospitalized, it says.
During the same time, at least 30
settlers have been killed by Palestinian gunmen.
In July, Jewish vigilantes killed three
Palestinians, including a 3-month-old boy, in Nablus. The
State Department condemned the attack as a "barbaric act" of
"unconscionable vigilantism." No one has been charged in the
"These people are a time bomb," says
Hanna Nasser, Palestinian mayor of the West Bank city of
Bethlehem. "No one is safe."
The attacks, occurring almost daily, have
been condemned by nearly all Israelis. Politicians, who fear
the extremists will spoil Israel's attempt to portray itself
as the victim rather than the aggressor in this conflict, have
been the most vocal. "These Jewish terrorists are criminals,"
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres says. "They've gone too
Yet, the attacks are expected to
increase, Israeli officials say. A group of Jewish vigilantes
who possess bomb-making materials has formed in Hebron, they
The group, which claimed responsibility
for the three recent Palestinian deaths, has been distributing
fliers in the West Bank that read: "Revenge is holy. It should
be up to the government to do it, but unfortunately, the
government does not care about the murder of Jews. There are
people whose patience has run out."
Security officials also fear the
extremists are widening their targets to include Israeli
police and soldiers sent to protect the settlers, as well as
Western diplomats and European peace monitors. All have
recently been attacked. The settlers accuse them of not doing
enough to protect them or of favoring the Palestinians.
Last week, 85 European Community monitors
who had patrolled Hebron since 1994 withdrew after complaining
of weeks of verbal and physical abuse by the settlers. "Every
day, we were kicked, dragged and beaten by the settlers," says
Karl-Henrik Sjursen of Norway, chief of the observer mission.
"They made life impossible for us."
Shots at a taxi
On a recent Sunday, Shapiro and the 12
other extremists spotted their first target: a white
Palestinian taxi that had turned the corner and begun to
rumble toward them. From a hill 50 yards away, the men could
be seen removing the safety locks from the weapons. Their
wives were grabbing extra ammunition clips. Their children,
all of them under age 12, were picking up rocks.
But the Palestinian driver, upon seeing
the settlers, brought his Mercedes stretch taxi to a sudden
stop 50 yards from the checkpoint. He quickly turned the car
around. Cursing aloud, Shapiro ordered the men to open fire.
The shooting lasted for 10 seconds.
At least two bullets hit the car. One
shattered its back window. Several women wearing white Islamic
headscarves could be heard screaming and seen ducking. It
wasn't known whether anyone was wounded.
"We'll keep this up until we eliminate
all the Muslim filth," Shapiro said before the confrontation.
"We have to: It's our Jewish duty."
Analysts such as Elisha Efrat of Tel Aviv
University estimate that only 10% of the 177,000 settlers in
the West Bank and Gaza are extremists, people who are willing
to die before giving up their land.
Many of them live behind 25-foot tall
stone fences and bulletproof windows in Hebron. The 450
settlers here, and the 7,000 others who live down the road in
Israeli-controlled territory, see themselves as the guardians
of Hebron, which is considered Judaism's second holiest city
after Jerusalem. All are protected by several thousand Israeli
soldiers and police.
"This is God's land given to us, the
Israeli people," says settler Ariel Fischer, 38, citing
biblical passages that support Israel's claim of the land.
Like most of the extremists, he's Israeli-born. "If you don't
wear a yarmulke (skullcap), get out."
Hebron is also home to 120,000
Palestinians, many of whom live in the hilltop area of Abu
For centuries, Arabs and Jews coexisted
peacefully in Hebron. But a 1929 riot resulted in the deaths
of more than 60 Jews. The British, who governed what was then
Palestine, resettled the remaining Jews elsewhere.
In 1967, after Israel captured the West
Bank of the Jordan River, some Jews returned. But those who
came were the most ideologically extreme of Israelis. Backed
by government policies that encouraged them to move into the
West Bank, the Israelis claimed a biblical right to the city
and demanded that the Arabs leave.
Then in 1997, the Israeli Army, which had
controlled Hebron since the '67 war, withdrew from 80% of the
city and ceded control to the Palestinian Authority. The
remaining 20% was left for the settlers.
That was a recipe for disaster, settlers
say. Almost daily since September, there have been shots fired
into their settlement by Palestinian snipers. In response,
Israel put 30,000 Palestinians, whose homes surround the
settlement, under a 24-hour curfew. It prohibits them from
leaving their homes, even to go to a doctor or attend school,
and jails them if they do. Twice a week, the curfew is lifted
for a few hours to allow the residents to shop. The rest of
the time, they are in their homes.
Last week, hundreds of Israeli troops,
backed by dozens of tanks and bulldozers, swept into Hebron
for several hours to destroy buildings they say had been used
by Palestinian snipers. Settlers want Israel to reestablish
control of the area by permanently reoccupying all of Hebron.
Until that happens, settlers say they're forced to take
"pre-emptive actions" to stop the Palestinian gunfire.
"People here are extremely upset," says
David Wilder, a spokesman for Jewish settlers here. "We're
upset by the daily shooting, killings and harassment by
Palestinians. People feel abandoned (by Israel's government)
and so some people are going to take up guns."
Says another settler spokesman Noam
Federman, "If we don't take up guns, we'll be ducks in a
But Israeli officials say the settlers
often provoke the violence. Unlike the Palestinians, the
settlers are free to leave their homes at will. They regularly
attack Palestinian shops while the Palestinians, who are
forced to stay indoors because of the curfew, can only watch,
human rights groups say.
Ahmad Abu Neni, 55, is blind and a
Palestinian. His small kiosk of cleaning supplies has been
ransacked three times since last September by settlers, human
rights officials say. He's also been beaten in the back with a
brick and punched repeatedly, they add.
Neni says Israeli soldiers tried to break
up one of the attacks by firing a concussion grenade at the
attackers, only to set his clothes on fire. He suffered
third-degree burns. His shop now closed, he survives on
handouts of food and money. "If I had money and could see, I
would leave," Neni says. "It's just a matter of time before
they beat me again."
Nearby, Nafez Bani Jaber, 45, was burying
123 of his sheep. He says they were poisoned last week after
10 Jewish extremists chased him off his fields. Israeli police
say they have found needles dipped in poison that they believe
the settlers used on the sheep. Police say poison also was
dumped down a nearby well used by Palestinians.
"First they poisoned the sheep. Next will
be the children," Jaber says. "These are war crimes."
Often, the violence directed at the
Palestinians is aimed at their Muslim faith.
Settlers have spray painted graffiti
reading "Mohammed is a homosexual," referring to the Islamic
prophet, and painted Jewish Stars of David on the walls of the
local Arab market. They have also surrounded Muslim women and
tried to rip off their Islamic headscarves and body veils,
human rights groups say.
Samar Abdul-Shafti, a 36-year-old
Palestinian mother of two, was photographed last month trying
to escape several settlers who were beating her as they tried
to remove her headscarf. It has happened two other times since
then, she says, revealing bruises on her arms, legs and
"The Jews are trying to do to us what was
done to them during the Holocaust," Shafti says. "They must
not be allowed to drive us from our homes. Someone must
Palestinian police say they don't have
the means to defend the Arab residents. Israeli soldiers seem
unwilling or unable to help. Noam Tivon, Israeli Defense
Forces brigade commander for Hebron, says his soldiers are in
Hebron to protect the settlers, not the Palestinians. Tivon
says his soldiers and police officers often are ambushed by
the settlers, whom he calls "hooligans." The settlers accuse
the police of failing to stop the Arab violence.
"They throw rocks at us, curse at us and
vandalize our police cars," says Israeli policeman Shahar
Mahsomi, 25. He suffered a concussion in March after a settler
struck him on the head with a rock. Another settler tried to
stab two police officers in the same scuttle. "I never thought
I'd be fighting Jews," Mahsomi says.
The situation is just as dangerous at the
nearby settlements of Kiryat Arba and Givat Harsina where
nearly 7,000 settlers, many of whom are hard-liners, regularly
attack neighboring Palestinians.
"I can't believe we are risking our lives
to defend these fanatics," says Sgt. Avi Alamm, 28 as he
watches a settler boy, dressed as the late Goldstein, walk by
with an Israeli flag. Goldstein, who gunned down the 29
Muslims, is revered among some settlers as a prophet. They
encourage their children to dress like him on occasion. "The
people make me ashamed to be a Jew," Alamm says.
Now, many Israelis are calling on the
government to dismantle extremist settlements such as the one
here. "The Jewish settlement in Hebron is a major nuisance,
and the lawless behavior by Jews there in recent days leads to
one conclusion," the Israeli newspaper "Ha'aretz" recently
editorialized. "Hebron must be evacuated."