- HEBRON, West Bank - After
a quick prayer, Avi Shapiro and 12 other Jewish settlers put on their
skullcaps, grabbed their semiautomatic rifles and headed toward Highway
- There, they pushed boulders, stretched barbed wire and
set tires afire to form a barricade that, they said, would stop even the
biggest of Palestinian taxis. Then they waited for a vehicle to
- As they crouched in a ditch beside the road, Shapiro,
the leader of the group, gave the settlers orders: Surround any taxi,
fire'' and kill as many of the ''blood-sucking Arab'' passengers as
- ''We are doing what (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon
promised but has failed to do: drive these sons of Arab whores from the
Land of Israel,'' said Shapiro, 42, who moved here with his wife and four
children 3 years ago from Brooklyn. ''If he won't get rid of the Muslim
filth, then we will.''
- Claiming they have been abandoned by Israel's government
and determined to rid the West Bank of Arabs, vigilante Jewish settlers
are shooting and beating Palestinians, stealing and destroying their
and poisoning and diverting their water supplies, Israeli and Palestinian
- Though Jewish extremists have lashed out before -- most
notoriously in 1994 when a U.S. settler, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down
29 Arabs in a nearby mosque -- never before have they struck with such
frequency, Israeli officials say. And nowhere has the violence been as
intense as in this disputed city, believed to be the burial place of the
Biblical prophet Abraham.
- Nearly 450 right-wing Jews, all of whom are armed and
claim a Biblical right to the land, live here among 120,000 Palestinians.
Many, like Shapiro and his colleagues, are ready to strike at any
- Israeli and U.S. officials have warned Sharon that if
the violence against Palestinian civilians increases, it could enflame
already high emotions and lead the entire region into war.
- ''It only takes a spark to light a very big fire here,''
says Yossi Sarid, a left-wing Israeli opposition leader. ''This is a city
that is cursed.''
- 'A time bomb'
- Since the start of the latest surge of violence in Israel
a year ago this month, at least 119 Palestinians have been killed by
civilians in the West Bank and Gaza, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli
human rights group that has been critical of both sides. Hundreds have
been hospitalized, it says.
- During the same time, at least 30 settlers have been
killed by Palestinian gunmen.
- In July, Jewish vigilantes killed three Palestinians,
including a 3-month-old boy, in Nablus. The State Department condemned
the attack as a ''barbaric act'' of ''unconscionable vigilantism.'' No
one has been charged in the attack.
- ''These people are a time bomb,'' says Hanna Nasser,
Palestinian mayor of the West Bank city of Bethlehem. ''No one is
- The almost daily attacks have been condemned by nearly
all Israelis, including most settlers. Politicians, who fear the extremists
will spoil Israel's attempt to portray itself as the victim rather than
the aggressor in this conflict, have been the most vocal.
- ''These Jewish terrorists are criminals,'' Israeli
Minister Shimon Peres says. ''They've gone too far.''
- Yet, the attacks are expected to increase, Israeli
say. A group of Jewish vigilantes who possess bomb-making materials has
formed in Hebron, the officials say.
- The group, which claimed responsibility for three recent
Palestinian deaths, has been distributing fliers in the West Bank that
read: ''Revenge is holy. It should be up to the government to do it, but
unfortunately, the government does not care about the murder of Jews. There
are people whose patience has run out.''
- Security officials also say they fear that the extremists
are widening their targets to include Israeli police and soldiers sent
to protect the settlers, as well as Western diplomats and European peace
monitors. All have recently been attacked. The settlers accuse them of
not doing enough to protect them or of favoring the Palestinians.
- On Aug. 21, 85 European Community monitors who had
Hebron since 1994 withdrew after complaining of weeks of verbal and
abuse by the settlers. ''Every day, we were kicked, dragged and beaten
by the settlers,'' says Karl-Henrik Sjursen of Norway, chief of the
mission. ''They made life impossible for us.''
- Shots at a taxi
- On a recent Sunday, Shapiro and the 12 other extremists
spotted their first target: a white Palestinian taxi that had turned the
corner and begun to rumble toward them. From a hill 50 yards away, the
Jewish men could be seen removing the safety locks from the weapons. Their
wives were grabbing extra ammunition clips. Their children, all of them
younger than 12, were picking up rocks.
- But the Palestinian driver, upon seeing the settlers,
brought his Mercedes stretch taxi to a sudden stop 50 yards from the
He quickly turned the car around. Cursing aloud, Shapiro ordered the men
to open fire. The shooting lasted for 10 seconds.
- At least two bullets hit the car. One shattered its back
window. Several women wearing white Islamic headscarves could be heard
screaming and seen ducking. It wasn't known whether anyone was
- ''We'll keep this up until we eliminate all the Muslim
filth,'' Shapiro said before the confrontation. ''We have to: It's our
- 'God's land given to us'
- Analysts such as Elisha Efrat of Tel Aviv University
estimate that 10% of the 177,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza are
extremists, people who are willing to die before giving up their
- Many of them live behind 25-foot tall stone fences and
bulletproof windows in Hebron. The 450 settlers here, and the 7,000 others
who live down the road in Israeli-controlled territory, see themselves
as the guardians of Hebron, which is considered Judaism's second holiest
city after Jerusalem. All are protected by several thousand Israeli
- ''This is God's land given to us, the Israeli people,''
says settler Ariel Fischer, 38, citing Biblical passages that support
claim of the land. Like most of the extremists, he's Israeli-born. ''If
you don't wear a yarmulke (skullcap), get out.''
- Hebron is also home to 120,000 Palestinians, many of
whom live in the hilltop area of Abu Sneineh.
- For centuries, Arabs and Jews coexisted peacefully in
Hebron. Then a riot in 1929 resulted in the deaths of more than 60 Jews.
The British, who governed what was then Palestine, resettled the remaining
- In 1967, after Israel captured the West Bank of the
River, some Jews returned. But those who came were the most ideologically
extreme of Israelis. Backed by government policies that encouraged them
to move into the West Bank, the Israelis claimed a Biblical right to the
city and demanded that the Arabs leave.
- Then in 1997, the Israeli army, which had controlled
Hebron since the war 30 years ago, withdrew from 80% of the city and ceded
control to the Palestinian Authority.
- The remaining 20% was left for the settlers.
- That was a recipe for disaster, settlers say. Almost
daily since last September, there have been shots fired into their
by Palestinian snipers. In response, Israel put 30,000 Palestinians, whose
homes surround the settlement, under a 24-hour curfew. It prohibits them
from leaving their homes, even to go to a doctor or attend school, and
jails them if they do. Twice a week, the curfew is lifted for a few hours
to allow the residents to shop. The rest of the time, they are in their
- Last week, hundreds of Israeli troops, backed by dozens
of tanks and bulldozers, swept into Hebron for several hours to destroy
buildings they say had been used by Palestinian snipers. Settlers want
Israel to reestablish control of the area by permanently reoccupying all
of Hebron. Until that happens, settlers say, they're forced to take
actions'' to stop the Palestinian gunfire.
- ''People here are extremely upset,'' says David Wilder,
a spokesman for Jewish settlers here. ''We're upset by the daily shooting,
killings and harassment by Palestinians. People feel abandoned (by Israel's
government) and so some people are going to take up guns.'' Says another
settler spokesman Noam Federman, ''If we don't take up guns, we'll be ducks
in a shooting range.''
- But Israeli officials say the settlers often provoke
the violence. Unlike the Palestinians, the settlers are free to leave their
homes at will. They regularly attack Palestinian shops while the
who are forced to stay indoors because of the curfew, can only watch,
to human rights groups.
- Ahmad Abu Neni, 55, is blind and a Palestinian. His small
kiosk of cleaning supplies has been ransacked three times since last
by settlers, human rights officials say. He also has been beaten in the
back with a brick and punched repeatedly, they add.
- Neni says Israeli soldiers tried to break up one of the
attacks by firing a concussion grenade at the attackers, only to set his
clothes on fire. He suffered third-degree burns. His shop now closed, he
survives on handouts of food and money. ''If I had money and could see,
I would leave,'' Neni says. ''It's just a matter of time before they beat
- Nearby, Nafez Bani Jaber, 45, was burying all 123 of
his sheep. He says they were poisoned last week after 10 Jewish extremists
chased him off his fields. Israeli police say they have found needles
in poison that they believe the settlers used on the sheep. Police say
poison also was dumped down a nearby well that Palestinians use.
- ''First they poisoned the sheep. Next will be the
Jaber says. ''These are war crimes.''
- Often, the violence directed at the Palestinians is aimed
at their Muslim faith. Settlers have spray painted graffiti reading
is a homosexual,'' referring to the Islamic prophet, and painted Jewish
Stars of David on the walls of the local Arab market. They also have
Muslim women and tried to rip off their Islamic headscarves and body veils,
human rights groups say.
- Samar Abdul-Shafti, 36, a Palestinian mother of two,
was photographed last month trying to escape several settlers who were
beating her as they tried to remove her headscarf. It has happened two
other times since then, she says, revealing bruises on her arms, legs and
- ''The Jews are trying to do to us what was done to them
during the Holocaust,'' Shafti says. ''They must not be allowed to drive
us from our homes. Someone must help.''
- 'Ashamed to be a Jew'
- Palestinian police say they don't have the means to
the Arab residents.
- Israeli soldiers seem unwilling or unable to help. Noam
Tivon, Israeli Defense Forces brigade commander for Hebron, says his
are in Hebron to protect the settlers, not the Palestinians. Tivon says
his soldiers and police officers often are ambushed by settlers whom he
- The settlers accuse the police of failing to stop the
- ''They throw rocks at us, curse at us and vandalize our
police cars,'' says Israeli policeman Shahar Mahsomi, 25. He suffered a
concussion in March after a settler struck him on the head with a rock.
Another settler tried to stab two police officers in the same scuttle.
''I never thought I'd be fighting Jews,'' Mahsomi says.
- The situation is just as dangerous at the nearby
of Kiryat Arba and Givat Harsina where nearly 7,000 settlers, many of whom
are hard-liners, regularly attack neighboring Palestinians.
- ''I can't believe we are risking our lives to defend
these fanatics,'' says Sgt. Avi Alamm, 28, as he watches a settler boy,
dressed as the late Goldstein, walked by with an Israeli flag. Goldstein,
who gunned down the 29 Muslims, is revered among some settlers as a
They encourage their children to dress like him on occasion. ''The people
make me ashamed to be a Jew,'' Alamm says.
- Now, many Israelis are calling on the government to
extremist settlements such as the one here.
- ''The Jewish settlement in Hebron is a major nuisance,
and the lawless behavior by Jews there in recent days leads to one
the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz recently editorialized. ''Hebron must be