Miriam Levinger and Mufida Sharabati live within 50 yards of each other. Their homes are on opposite sides of an ancient courtyard where more than a dozen Israeli soldiers sit idly near a pile of gray rubble. Their lives today provide a metaphor for the whole of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The pile of rubble is what is left of a row of houses at one end of the courtyard that was torn down last week by Hebron's Jewish settlers, among the most prominent of whom are Levinger and her rabbi husband, Moshe. The uninhabited structures, in which Arab families once lived, were demolished as part of a government-approved plan for the reoccupation of this historic city's old Jewish quarter and the construction within it of a 21-unit apartment complex.
The courtyard across which Levinger and Sharabati can peer at each other is the heart of the old quarter, bordering the site of a 16th century synagogue where today a new Jewish house of worship stands. To Levinger, the presence of seven Jewish families in the old quarter and the plans to expand are a part of the march of history, making them "a link in the return" of the Jews to their ancestral homes.
To Sharabati, like Levinger the mother of 11 children, but an Arab, it is a threat. The tightly packed stone row houses of the old quarter depend on each other for support, and there is a fear that the destruction of the first row of houses has weakened those structures behind them. Her children, Sharabati said, "are afraid the house will fall down."
Across the West Bank these days, the story is much the same -- expanding Jewish settlement under the protection of the Israeli Army, and Arab resentment that occasionally flares into violence.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister David Levy said last night that five new permanent Jewish settlements will soon be established in the West Bank. The Israeli government reportedly is preparing to increase its budget for settlement expansion by more than $150 million. Near a Palestinian refugee camp in the vicinity of the Arab city of Nablus, Orthodox Jews have begun to make daily visits to Joseph's Tomb and to discuss the establishment of a yeshiva -- a Jewish religious school -- at the site.
In recent weeks, the number of Arab demonstrations in the West Bank and rock-throwing at Israeli vehicles have increased sharply after several months of relative quiet. Military authorities have put curfews on some of the refugee camps in the area. Today, representatives of Jewish settlers in the occupied territory met with the Israeli Army's central commander to demand stronger measures against the Arabs.
Two weeks ago, Zvi Segal, a postman from the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, was stabbed as he walked through the Hebron market. Two days later, Mustafa Natshe, the acting mayor of Hebron, received a letter from the local council of Kiryat Arba demanding that he apologize "clearly and loudly."
"We can't stand aside when the blood of our friends is shed," the letter said.
Natshe received the letter on Oct. 22. On Oct. 29, at a crowded soccer field in the city, a hand grenade exploded, seriously injuring two Arab youths. According to Natshe, police later found six more grenades, each with its trigger pin removed and replaced by a stone so that it would explode on touch.
Natshe did not apologize and there have been no arrests in the grenade incident.
The night before the explosion at the soccer field, the row of houses in the old Jewish quarter was torn down. It was the latest move by members of the militant nationalist Gush Emunim movement to expand the Jewish presence in Hebron, city of the ancient patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose tomb, which is also the site of a mosque, is but a short walk from Levinger's home in the Jewish quarter.
Kiryat Arba was established to allow Gush Emunim followers to live near the holy city of Hebron. But in the last few years, a handful of settlers has moved into Hebron, including the old Jewish quarter, which was first occupied by the Levingers and another family last year.
"King David did not rule in Kiryat Arba," the New York-born Levinger said in explaining the move. "King David ruled in Hebron before Jerusalem."
Natshe calls settlers like Levinger "extremists and fanatics." The Jews, he says, argue that they are reclaiming Jewish property, much of it abandoned after the massacre of 67 Hebron Jews in 1929. But there are many conflicting, insoluble property claims in what was once Palestine, Natshe said.
"We have properties in Jerusalem and Jaffa where we can't go," he said. "My father has three houses in West Jerusalem where I can't go in. So how can they come and build and settle and we can't?"
The mayor said his city is gradually being encircled by Jewish settlements, becoming "like a ghetto." Not satisfied with that, he said bitterly, the settlers insist also on moving into the city itself.
"This is an ancient city," he said. "We must preserve these buildings. To build new buildings is not good. There are other areas on which to build."
But to Miriam Levinger, it is Hebron's very antiquity, its links to the past and Jewish history, that compel an expanding modern Jewish presence. She emigrated to Israel 27 years ago and moved to the Hebron area shortly after the 1967 war, in which Israel captured the territory from Jordan. "We're living where Abraham and Isaac lived," she said.
The Israeli government at first opposed the settlers' move into Hebron, fearing it would only exacerbate tension with the Arabs. But the government, which has fostered Jewish settlement in many parts of the West Bank, gradually gave in to the Hebron settlers' demands, agreeing in principle in 1980 that Jews have a right to live anywhere in the city. The decision to begin the expansion project in the old Jewish quarter, starting with the demolition of the row of houses last week, also had the government's unannounced approval, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Levinger said that Arab inhabitants of structures taken over by Jews have been offered and accepted compensation, although that apparently did not apply to the uninhabited houses torn down last week. Natshe contends that for Arabs to accept compensation would make them "traitors to their homeland and to the whole city."
Across the courtyard, Sharabati said she has not been asked to move or been offered compensation for the home she has lived in for 25 years, but she is clearly in the path of the settlers' plans for the old quarter.
It is not certain what will happen next in and around the old courtyard, or elsewhere in the West Bank where settlers are pressing claims to Jewish sovereignty. Levinger said they hope to establish a whole series of Jewish neighborhoods in Arab Hebron as part of "the return." That is her vision for the future, but part of the drive to achieve it, she makes clear, is in her knowledge of what has happened in the past.
"It is like wiping away the shame of iniquity," she said. "Auschwitz I can't fix, Khomeini I can't fix, Hitler I can't fix, Stalin I can't fix. Here I can fix."