The soldier tasked with securing the compound from the east raised his weapon to his shoulder, aiming it at the face of a young Palestinian "smartass." The Palestinian, pointing to his watch as if he's in a hurry, insisted on crossing through the compound. The soldier was too nervous and raised the weapon. The young Palestinian, apparently used to similar situations, continued advancing. I was scared blood was going to be spilled here for nothing.
"He's not listening. This area is closed off, it's closed," the soldier, 20-years-old perhaps, mumbled to me. When tensions calmed, he became available for the next mission, directing a group of 8-year-old school children to a bypass road around the problematic house "These soldiers are too nervous," the Palestinian explained, shaking with anger, while being forced to sit down on a rock, waiting to pass through to his home located across the narrow alley. Another bad incident was averted near the "House of Peace."
On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai arrived here in a bulletproof vehicle belonging to the Samaria Regional Council. When the car stopped in front of the Muslim cemetery across the alley, with the crowded Palestinian homes rising above it, Yishai told me he isn't scared, even though he was forced to wear a bulletproof vest. "This is a Jewish home," he said, as he proceeded to meet with Hebron Jewish Community Spokesman Noam Arnon, Baruch Marzel, and their friends who reside in the house, while offering his support and calling on them to refrain from any violence.
"Hebron is ours since Abraham our forefather purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs, and any Jew who legally purchased a home here can reside here," Yishai said.
A group of settlers with kippahs on their heads and armed with M-16 rifles, with the magazines inserted, were standing by the door. "Journalists can't come in," they said. Our entry was eventually facilitated only through intense persuasion efforts by Minister Yishai's media advisor, Roee Lahmanovitch.
The settlers in the house don't like the media because they think we treated them unjustly, among other things because we refer to the compound as the "House of Controversy." They prefer the name they gave the compound, located at the heart of Hebron's Old City – "House of Peace."
'We can get billion dollars if needed'
The controversy is not merely semantic. The argument over the name is replete with propaganda and emotions. The people of Hebron know this is a test case. If the Olmert establishment, which leans that way anyway, allows them to hold on to the asset, this would mark a breakthrough. They can get many donors who would purchase many homes at the heart of the city of our forefathers at full price. They would then be able to create a continuum between Kiryat Arba and Tel Rumeida. They would be able to establish facts on the ground that would make it harder to evacuate them later, should someone would want to do that in the future, heaven forbid.
The name "House of Peace" may be an excellent starting point. Olmert's administration would be able to "swallow" it with no trouble. More anonymous Jewish donors would donate hundreds of thousands of dollars – and if necessary, millions – just like they provided the USD 750,000 needed to purchase this shopping compound at the heart of the Arab population.
"There is no problem fundraising even a billion dollars in order to purchase houses from the Arabs here," one of the visitors to the house told us. "The problem is only to accept the fact that this is indeed a legal procedure, and that a Jew can purchase a house at the heart of Hebron."
"I have no problem with the purchase of this house, or the purchase of other houses in Hebron," Minister Yishai told us. On Wednesday he left behind the burning issues he's dealing with, in order to offer his support to the 12 families and 20 individuals at the house of controversy, a short while before police officers brought evacuation decrees issued on the orders of another minister, Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
"This is an area that was left under Israeli control according to the Hebron agreement," Yishai said. "We're not talking about a legal controversy or a security controversy. We're talking about Jewish ownership rights of a house purchased at full price."
Peretz only sane voice?
The evening before that, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced that there is no immediate reason to evacuate the residents. This is not a fresh invasion, because the Jews purchased the house. There's no immediate security problem, because the army says so. Therefore, the residents cannot be evacuated immediately, Mazuz ruled.
Yet Defense Minister Peretz didn't accept this. "The State determines the policy, and I, as the defense minister who is the sovereign in this territory, seek to prevent settlement at a controversial area found at a point of friction with the Palestinians," he said. "Those are the government's Basic Lines, to reach a compromise with the Palestinians, rather than creating new points of friction."
But Amir Peretz, so it seems, is on his own. The Kadima ministers, headed by Ronnie Bar-On, who is a close associate of Olmert and wouldn't make such move without coordinating it, spoke out against Peretz and his decision to evacuate the settlers. The Shas ministers too, headed by Yishai who a moment before visiting Hebron met with the prime minister, back the Jewish presence there and the need to create a Jewish continuum between Kiryat Arba, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Tel Rumeida.
The ministers will say similar things during the government session to be convened on the matter. The prime minister will back them, apparently. The ministers wanted to hold a discussion this coming Sunday, but it will be held on another occasion.
And so, Peretz will remain the only sane voice seeking to prevent bloodshed, on his own. For him, this is a delusional situation where a bunch of Jews with a messianic mission seeking to take over Hebron's Old City are sitting in the midst of a furious Palestinian mob angry at the foreign body implanted within it. Yet Peretz is part of a government that backs a move that could reignite the fire in Hebron, and not only there, should it be implemented.
Yet if you ask the settlers at the site, you will discover that the media is again talking nonsense. "We live peacefully with our environment," Baruch Marzel claimed. "The Arabs here accepted us very nicely. There's no tension. Hundreds of Palestinians pass here every day and there's no friction or controversy."
"The Palestinians, as opposed to you, the journalists, realize this is a house purchased by us – and now we're good neighbors," said one of the young Jews at the entrance to the controversial Jewish house at the heart of Hebron. "They welcomed us." For us, it was a little difficult to see it.