Jewish settlers danced in the streets of Hebron last night, and over the sounds of music and singing one of them said she could hear the happy cries of ghosts from the massacre of 1929.
Her name was Leah, and no last name was necessary, she said, because "in biblical times no one had last names." She stood at the edge of about 50 chanting young men who snaked around each other in three tight circles. The dancing was awkward for some because of the guns slung over their shoulders -- a Soviet-made AK47, an Israeli-made Galil, a U.S.-made M16.
Leah, a squat woman of 50 who four years ago lived in New York and is now a resident of Qiryat Arba, the large Jewish settlement adjacent to this Arab city in the occupied West Bank, watched the scene with glowing eyes.
"I can see the ghosts from 1929, from the massacre," she said. "I can see how happy they are that the Jews are back in Hebron. This is long overdue." The occasion was Simhat Torah, a traditional celebration that immediately follows the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot, the commemoration of the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert. Part carnival and state fair, part political rally, part religious revival meeting, it was also a show of strength and determination by the handful of Jewish settlers who live in Hebron and their supporters in the West Bank and Israel.
For some, it was also a chance to demonstrate their sympathy for the suspects in the so-called Jewish underground trial, the men who are accused of waging a campaign of terror against the Arabs of the West Bank. They set up tables in the square, handing out leaflets in support of the suspects who are now on trial and soliciting contributions for their defense.
Only a few Jewish families live in Hebron today, a city rich in biblical history but whose recent years have been marked by bloody violence. In the Arab uprising of 1929, the city's small Jewish community was attacked, and 67 persons were killed. So to Leah and others, it was important to celebrate that the Jews are back and to show that they are here to stay and to grow in numbers, even if the new Israeli national unity government is divided on that question.
Hebron's 70,000 Arab residents were not invited to the festival. The metal fronts of their stores and cafes were bolted shut. Curtains in the windows of homes overlooking the market were drawn. The streets were empty. The Israeli Army did not impose a curfew on Hebron last night. It was not necessary.
"It is a self-imposed curfew," said one man at the scene. "See all the soldiers -- that is a message to go back to your television sets and watch."
Hundreds of soldiers manned intersections and roamed the streets. Others stood watch on rooftops all around the market square. At the north entrance to the city, where a group of soldiers built a fire against the chill night air, traffic was diverted from the main road, then sent by a circuitous route to the market in the center of town.
It was unclear how much the extraordinary security precautions cost the economically strapped Israeli government. Israel's "Peace Now" movement had asked Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to prevent the celebration, but he had refused.
About 4,000 persons, including at least six members of parliament, attended the celebration. The country's vice prime minister and foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, sent a message of greetings and best wishes.
Long lines of men, some with children hoisted on their shoulders, wound through the square, circling the memorial to Aharon Gross, a Jewish seminary student who was slain in the Hebron market last year. Soldiers with guns and settlers, some also with guns, mingled freely.
In the glow of the colored lights strung around the market square for the occasion, little girls stuffed wads of pink cotton candy in their mouths. The celebrators danced and sang and listened to two speeches, one by former defense minister Ariel Sharon, the other by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the leader of the Hebron settlers.
Sharon said that the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank will grow from the tens of thousands there now to hundreds of thousands, who will live peacefully with their Arab neighbors.
"But the laws in Israel are going to be Israeli laws," he added. "The Arabs will live in the land of Israel. To live here is a Jewish right. We will live here by right. But our neighbors will live in the land of Israel."
Next year, Sharon told the crowd, he hoped the celebration would be in Nablus, the largest Arab city in the West Bank where there are as yet no Jewish settlers.
Levinger, his voice rising, appealed for the release of the Jewish underground suspects, whose alleged crimes include an armed assault on Hebron's Islamic College in retaliation for the death of Gross. Three Arab students were killed and 33 others wounded in the attack.
In a nearby home in the old Jewish quarter, Levinger's American-born wife, Miriam, held court around her kitchen table. She had sent out word through Leah and others that she would like to see the foreign journalists who had come to Hebron to report the event.
She served tea and once again made the case for the settlers of Hebron: how Jews lived here continuously from the time of the Second Temple until the 1929 massacre; how she, as a Jew, could live anywhere in Paris, so why couldn't she live here, in one of Judaism's four holy cities.
But, she was asked, wasn't this celebration, with the soldiers, the guns, the Israeli flags and Hebrew folk dancing by the side of an Arab market in an overwhelmingly Arab city, an unnecessary provocation?
No, she replied. It was Arab "thugs," sent to the area by Arab countries, that stirred up trouble in Hebron. This city, with its ancient Jewish quarter, was her "house," and as a Jew she had a "deed" to it. "There is no other deed," she said, and she would not be intimidated.