In a stall where Palestinian merchants once sold vegetables in this ancient city, Gershon Bar-Kochva made a home.
A few years ago, the mustachioed army reserve officer and a group of fellow Israeli settlers pushed into two rows of empty stalls that were once a market, expanding the perimeter of the Jewish enclave at the heart of largely Palestinian Hebron. Now the presence of the settlers has emerged as a test of the Israeli government's pledge to evacuate dozens of unauthorized settlements, as well as offshoot neighbors of government-sanctioned settlements, on land envisioned for a future Palestinian state.
The Bar-Kochvas are among 10 Jewish families that have been notified by Israel's military of their impending eviction, perhaps the first small step toward reopening all of Hebron's Old City to Palestinian businesses and traffic. But the families are bracing to resist if soldiers arrive on their doorsteps, now cluttered with bicycles, strollers and toys.
"We're very determined to stay here," said Gershon Bar-Kochva, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on the Roman army. "We have plans for what to do before they come and when they come. . . . Maybe we'll make the political price for them so high they will just leave us alone."
The United States, among other countries involved in Middle East peacemaking, has urged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to evacuate dozens of unauthorized settlements to continue reducing Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories following its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip two months ago. So far, Sharon's government has taken no action against the market settlers.
After the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon signaled that 24 unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank would be his next targets while he continues building inside established settlement blocs that he says will remain part of Israel in any final peace agreement. But Israel's political realignment, prompted by the Gaza withdrawal and highlighted by Sharon's break this week with the Likud Party, has stalled efforts to clear the outposts and halt unauthorized expansion.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had said publicly that he would execute the eviction order in the market here by the end of the year. Now, though, Mofaz's potential bid to lead Likud after Sharon's departure will likely delay any action until after the elections scheduled for March 28.
This city of 140,000 people is a vivid symbol of the close-quarters conflict over land and heritage that has animated disputes in the Middle East for generations. Several hundred Jewish settlers live in the shadow of the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- a site also held sacred by Muslims, who call it the Ibrahimi Mosque -- in a tiny, fortified redoubt surrounded by the hillside homes, storefronts and graveyards of Palestinians. The community was formed soon after Israel occupied the city in the 1967 Middle East war.
Settler leaders say the market stands near the center of what was Hebron's Jewish quarter until 1929, when Arab riots decimated the Jewish community here. The market has been closed to Palestinians since 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, an American-born settler, opened fire during a Muslim service at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Palestinians before being killed himself. The military immediately sealed the area to protect Jewish settlers from possible retaliation.
The Old City emptied, and businesses vanished behind shutters. The main commercial street, Shuhada, lined with centuries-old stone buildings, remains off-limits to Palestinian traffic despite a 1997 agreement outlining a partial Israeli withdrawal from the city that stipulated the road be reopened along with the market.
"We know that we are the right owners here, and they know that they are a strange body in this Palestinian residential area," said Imad Hamdan, acting general director of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, a nongovernmental Palestinian group renovating the Old City with funds from European and Arab countries.
Hamdan has overseen a slight revival of the area. But progress has been hampered by persistent violence and curfews that have discouraged the majority of merchants from reopening their shops. That has undermined one of the organization's other stated missions: "to contain and encircle Jewish settlements in the Old City" to prevent "their horizontal expansion" into places like the market.
"If we get the market back, we get the Old City back," Hamdan said. "If we don't, we're in trouble."
The Old City is largely the domain of the Jewish settlers of Avraham Avinu, the apartment complex where 35 families live adjacent to the vegetable market. Those families are not subject to the eviction order, although they say they view the market as part of their community and plan to defend it.
The settlers completed their push into the market in the furious days following the death of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, who was killed in March 2001 by Palestinian gunfire from a hillside overlooking the settlement. She died near a sandbox in the courtyard of the Avraham Avinu compound.
Two years ago, an Israeli military court ruled that the settlers in the market should be evicted, but nothing was done amid the sporadic violence of the most recent Palestinian uprising. Israel's attorney general visited the city this year and demanded that the military carry out the eviction order.
Living on borrowed time has not prevented the market settlers from turning the area into a neighborhood. The courtyards are carefully landscaped with vine-covered trellises and patches of grass. In some cases, the stalls have been transformed into split-level apartments. Bar-Kochva's sunlit living room is lined with books, and his kitchen gleams with new cabinets, appliances and the two sinks standard in kosher homes.
"If we can crack Hebron, we can crack anyplace -- that's how they see it," David Wilder, a U.S.-born spokesman for the Jewish settlers in Hebron, said of the Palestinians.
Wilder, who wears a pistol on his hip, added: "If the shops around here are open, I have no doubt there will be more bloodshed and violence. We are working on different ways to prevent that from happening."
Mofaz, the defense minister, has attributed the delay to a lack of military resources at a time of rising settler animosity toward Israeli soldiers. On one day in October, a group of young Jewish settlers hastily erected five hilltop outposts in the West Bank, some no larger than a single shipping container. Dismantling them the next day, an Israeli colonel was assaulted by a settler, prompting Sharon's cabinet to call for a crackdown.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said that "the issue is on the table and has not been concluded."
As a boy, Yasser Sharabati trundled fruit and vegetables from delivery trucks to the market stalls across from his family home, which sits on the seam between the Jewish enclave and the Palestinian city around it. In his mind, eviction of the market families will not resolve the enduring problems created when enemies live side by side.
"If you open the market and remove the checkpoints, we will have the same problem we had before," said Sharabati, a 31-year-old Palestinian who now paints houses for a living. "The settlers will turn over stalls, cause problems, and the military will close the streets down again. The solution is the evacuation of all the settlers."