Thursday, December 25, 2008

Hebron Pits Syrian Jews against Olmert

At the heart of heightened tension between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron, Khalil to the Palestinians, lays a reclusive, conservative Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and a Palestinian property owner who apparently is backtracking on a sale that ultimately could cost him his life. The dispute has all the elements of an explosive brew likely to strengthen support for hardliners like Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud and the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party: hard-line religious politics, business, opportunism and historical claims in a land where history is lived every day.

By and large publicity shy, hundreds of Syrian Jews, including the wealthy community's rabbis, rallied this month in support of fellow community member Morris Abraham, who bought from a Palestinian a building in the center of Hebron that sparked the latest dispute, according to The Forward, a Jewish daily. The community was outraged by the evacuation of Israeli settlers from the building after Israel's Supreme Court granted the government custody of the property, pending resolution of a court case in which the Palestinian owner is seeking annulment of the sale on the grounds that it was fraudulent. The eviction sparked settlers' riots in which 17 Palestinians were injured while Israeli security forces stood.

The eviction and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's description of the riots as a 'pogrom' has served to reinforce support for right-wing opponents of Olmert's Kadima party in the forthcoming election. The Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn already gives substantial support in part through the Hebron Fund that provides financial aid to Israeli settlers in Hebron and helped Abrahams purchase the property in Hebron. Abraham, a 40-year old shoe wholesaler, admits that the purchase was as much politically motivated as it was business related given his plans to convert the 40,000 square foot property into apartments for rent. The Forward quotes him as telling the rally that he bought the property because he was religious.

Hebron has religious significance for Jews and Muslims alike. It is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives are said to be buried. In addition, the Hebrew Bible describes Hebron as King David's original capital before he moved it to Jerusalem. "We have created a nation of suicide peacemakers," The Forward quoted Abraham as saying in his denunciation of the Olmert government's failure to side with him in the dispute with the Palestinian seller. With settlers seeking to assert Jewish rights to Hebron by acquiring real estate, Palestinian sellers risk execution as traitors.

Hebron claims a special place in Israeli and Palestinian history. A focal point of clashes during pre-state colonization, Palestinians in 1930 killed 68, many of them members of Hebron's long-settled Sephardic community. Abraham told the rally he had a personal affinity to the city because his grandfather had lived there at the time of the massacre but was able to escape.

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