The House of Dispute

The House of Dispute is a long, rectangular, four-story building on the east edge of Hebron. The street-level rooms are built as storefronts, facing the road leading to the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba. Upstairs are living quarters. As I write, the people living in those quarters are settlers who moved in one night in March of last year.

How much longer they will live there is known only to a few top-level Israeli officials -- assuming that those officials have overcome their own trepidations and decided when and how to evict the settlers. In a ruling last week, Israel's Supreme Court gave the building's residents three days to clear out voluntarily, or face  eviction by the government. The settlers and their hard-line supporters -- in the fortified Jewish enclaves in Hebron, in Kiryat Arba, and beyond -- say they won't let it happen.

"We shall defend [ourselves] against this injustice with our bodies," Noam Arnon, spokesman of the Hebron settler community, has declared. At a meeting to galvanize resistance, one rightist rabbi showed up with helmets for young people intending to struggle with soldiers at the site and said that the "the state of Israel's greatest enemy" is its own government. That was low-key compared to the response of the settlers, who vandalized a Muslim cemetery, sprayed "Mohammad the pig" on the wall of a mosque, and reportedly splashed turpentine in an Israeli soldier's face, injuring him.

The settlers' immediate goals are simply to continue expanding their presence in the Palestinian town and to deter the army from removing them. But the militancy in Hebron is part of a wider mood among the most ideologically committed settlers. They want Israeli leaders and the public to be too scared to think about evacuating whole settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. They seek strategic deterrence that will eliminate the political option of giving up land and of returning to a smaller and more democratic Israel. And they could be succeeding.

The House of Dispute gained that name in the local media from the moment the settlers moved in. The settlers claimed a Jewish company had bought the building, but the supposed seller denied a deal was ever completed. The military dithered, as it so often does when faced by settler faits accompli.

Eventually, Israeli police concluded that the purchase documents might be forged. An attorney for the settlers' side told me that as many as 100 people lived in the building "under normal circumstances" -- before reinforcements began arriving in response to the Supreme Court ruling. Among the new tenants is a right-wing Knesset member, Nissim Ze'ev. One long-term resident is reportedly ex-terrorist Uzi Sharbaf, who served time in the 1980s for an attack on Hebron's Islamic University that left three people dead and for attempting to blow up Palestinian buses. The settlers' Orwellian name for the building is the House of Peace.

Removing several hundred angry settlers and supporters might seem like a small operation compared to the 2005 evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. That pullout involved removing 9,000 settlers who had lived in the area for years. At Kfar Darom, one of the main settlements, young protesters barricaded themselves in the main synagogue, hurling acid at police and soldiers climbing ladders to reach them. Yet most families left peacefully.

The problem is that many settlers, especially young ones, remember the Gaza pullout with a mix of shame and fury -- fury at the Jewish state that they'd previously sanctified, fury at their own veteran leadership for urging passive resistance, fury at the army even though it still defends the settlers’ own communities in the West Bank.

The most militant settlers got their chance to set a new level of deterrence in February 2006. Ehud Olmert had just taken over as acting prime minister after Ariel Sharon's stroke. Olmert commanded police to carry out a court order to demolish nine houses built on private Palestinian land at Amona, a tiny mountaintop outpost in the West Bank. Thousands of young rightists, many of them teens, barricaded themselves in and on the houses, tossing bricks and concrete blocks at baton-swinging police. Afterward, settlers circulated online video clips of protesters with bloodied faces, stoking the anger.

Since then, the army has made only the most sporadic attempts to evacuate outposts -- small settlements established without government approval -- despite its commitment under the U.S.-backed "road map" to remove them. The military, quite clearly, doesn't want more confrontations with the settlers. The risk of violence is one reason. Another, suggests political sociologist Yagil Levy, is that the top brass fears that many soldiers would refuse orders to evacuate Jews. Soldiers are used to defending settlers. And an increasing number of officers come from the pro-settler ideological camp.

Yet any two-state agreement with the Palestinians would require an evacuation on a scale much larger than the Gaza pullout. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert originally hoped that the security fence Israel is building in the West Bank could serve as the future border. That would leave the largest settlements in Israeli hands. Even that proposal means evacuating the 65,000 settlers who live beyond the fence. Living deep in the West Bank, those settlers are precisely the ones most dedicated to a fusion of nationalism and faith in which holding territory is a sacrament.

Occasionally, top officials voice their concerns. At a Ccabinet meeting in early November, Yuval Diskin, the head of the Shin Bet domestic security agency warned of "a very high willingness among [settlers] to use violence -- not just stones, but live weapons -- in order to prevent" withdrawal.

Civil war is more frightening than threats from outside enemies. It means being shot at by members of your own society -- and shooting at them. It entails the danger that military discipline could crack. Diskin's warning was notable because Cabinet ministers and generals usually appear unwilling even to discuss the danger, much less propose ways to defuse it.

But the fear of what could happen between Israelis the day after an agreement helps explain why Olmert and his Kadima Party's candidate to succeed him, Tzipi Livni, both seem more interested in negotiating with the Palestinians than in reaching an agreement. It explains why Israelis on the left wonder -- when they let themselves voice their worries -- if withdrawal is still possible.

Yet the alternatives are worse: continued occupation leading to new conflict with the Palestinians, or creation of a single, communally riven Palestinian-Israeli state. The settlers' bid for deterrence closes off Israel's strategic option for a peaceful and democratic future.

"We will resist the evacuation of the House of Peace with great force, much greater than what we did in Amona," settlement firebrand Daniella Weiss threatened on Tuesday, speaking to Israel's Army Radio station. Both she and her opponents know that much more is at stake than a single building in Hebron.

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