Piecing a Peace Together

They speak Arabic, understand `the Arab mentality' and are familiar with `Arab codes.' These Jews of Middle Eastern descent believe they can build bridges for peace by settling in Hebron.

"Show your ID cards." Druze soldiers in the Border Police at the military post at the entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs swooped down on three men. The soldiers could not decide at first glance whether they were Jews or Arabs. One of them in particular had a definitely Middle Eastern appearance - dark-skinned, a thick mustache and even Arab body language. A smiling young Druze soldier from Beit Jann circled around him in disbelief. "Are you a Jew or an Arab?" he kept asking.

The young man, Yitzhak Magrafta of Tel Aviv, 27, readily pulled out his identity card: "A Jew, of course a Jew. Would I lie to you? I wouldn't know how to lie, even if I wanted to," he said, wagging a finger. "I didn't say you were lying," bridled the soldier, and carefully examined the ID card, looking from the photograph to Magrafta until he was satisfied. "So you're Jewish. Unbelievable," he giggled in astonishment.

Magrafta and his friends - Herzl Haim, 44, who is of Libyan origin, and Avner Haimov, who comes from Bukhara - were allowed to enter the casbah in Hebron only with military escort. Four Ethiopian soldiers were briefed and reported for the mission. The dark, narrow alleys were almost empty at midday. At the casbah's lively, traditional market, only a handful of Palestinian peddlers remained. After the disturbances of the past month, signs of economic distress and a throttled quiet were evident everywhere. The green iron doors of the shuttered Palestinian shops were still covered in slogans scrawled there years ago by Hebron's Jewish settlers. No one has ever bothered to erase them: "Revenge," "Death to the Arabs," "We Hate You," "Stinkers" and more.

The three Israelis, who see themselves as Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) peace activists, traditional Likud voters, headed for the home of the Abu Samir al-Sharabati family in the heart of the casbah. During the morning they had heaped onto a truck from East Jerusalem mattresses, second-hand electrical appliances and dozens of sacks of clothing - a donation to victims of the pogrom perpetrated by Jewish settlers at the beginning of the month.

They even brought along a donation from the Train Theater - T-shirts emblazoned in Hebrew and English with "The International Puppet Festival." This in mournful Hebron, where, in the absurd reality of life, all boundaries have long been crossed, and where, on the margins of despair and impotence, there is still the desire to hold on to any lifeline, however unlikely. This is the part of Hebron that is locked into a circle of tiny, wild Jewish settlements, among the cruelest of them. Even before the reoccupation of the West Bank, it was considered territory under Israeli control, H-2, and it shifts from profound pessimism to violence to resignation.

Roofs of hatred

Abu Samir al-Sharabati, one of the most veteran antiquities dealers in the casbah, and his wife, Samira, wandered grief-stricken through their house - it has been destroyed to its foundations. Abu Samir's house, whose rooms were piled up on five levels linked by winding stairways, was known as a museum of antique objects and antique books that his family had collected over the course of almost a century. Now there remained only fragments of glass, smashed porcelain, a burned stove, discarded pots, uprooted grilles, broken pictures and piles of unidentified filth. The Jewish settlers who destroyed the house did not leave a single chair, bed or armchair standing and even wrecked the luxuriant plants that had lined the stairs.

"Total destruction, total destruction," wailed Samira Sharabati, 67, the mother of 15 sons and daughters. One of her arms has been amputated, and she wears a traditional white scarf over her head. "What prolonged suffering. Nothing is left, nothing. We live in the most dangerous alley. How can anyone live this way? Where will we go? Abu Samir cries all day long. They didn't even leave a washing machine. Everything has been ruined. They burned or took seven Persian carpets. What have we ever done to them, has any of us ever touched them? Our only crime was that we lived in the house of our grandfather and grandmother, that's all. They want us to leave our home. How can we leave? I had a sewing machine and they took it. How can your own house become the most dangerous place for you? Even my married daughters are afraid to come visit me here. One of them, the one who is studying at the polytechnic, was grabbed by soldiers in an unnatural way. They pawed her in sensitive places."

For more than 10 years, sporadic disturbances by Jewish settlers have occurred in the same crowded area of Palestinian houses in the casbah that borders on the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. The nets spread over the balconies and open inner courtyards - for fear of intrusion by soldiers and settlers from the roofs - are always full of stones thrown by settlers at various times.

Only a year ago, settlers threw toxic chemicals from insecticide containers into the upper bedrooms of the Sharabati family home. During my visit there, immediately after the incident, the rooms were still pervaded by disgusting smells and shrapnel and bullets were scattered everywhere. The windows were punctured by bullet holes. The Israel Defense Forces position on the roof of Abu Samir's house was intended to protect the settlers. Neither then nor now has the army ever found time to prevent attacks on the Sharabati family.

At the beginning of the funeral procession of Elazar Leibovitz, a soldier murdered in a shooting attack at the end of last month, Abu Samir and his wife were at home, wearing pajamas and slippers and reading the Koran. All of a sudden, says Abu Samir, he heard noises and saw settlers and soldiers running across the roof of his house and cursing the neighbor women, who were peeking out of their windows. He says they shouted: "You whore, get back into your house, fast." (According to Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the area, Abu Samir saw settlers in uniform, not the regular soldiers who serve there.)

Before long, his ears picked up the roar of the tanks and the armored personnel carriers coming out of the military camp near his house. The couple's daughters who still live at home had already gone out, fortunately for them, to a family wedding. He quickly closed all the doors and windows, got dressed and fled with his wife to the home of his son, which is in the area formerly under Palestinian control.

He did not know about the outbreak of the settlers' rampage during Leibovitz's funeral, in which a Palestinian girl of 14 was killed and dozens of civilians and police were wounded. However, he had forebodings. "I knew who I was dealing with. Scum. Wild people, people with no law and no judge. When your life is destroyed before your very eyes every day, you melt like a candle. It's like counting the hours until your death," he said with tears in his eyes. "Had we stayed at home that night, we would have gone the way of all flesh, the way all our things did," muttered his wife.

Both of them are convinced that the army and the police cooperated in "the plot" with the settlers. When settlers broke into the home of the late Abu Najib al-Sharabati, Abu Samir's neighbor on the ground floor, and broke everything they could lay their hands on, Abu Najib's son had locked himself, frightened, into one of the rooms. Abu Samir followed what was happening on the phone with his neighbors. Gripped by anxiety, he sent his son Taysir to guard their home. The son found the house full of police, who tried to persuade him not to bring his elderly parents back home, but to sleep there himself and guard the house.

The high level of suspicion in this place, which is beset by suffering and liquidations, has caused the Sharabati family to believe that their son was saved from a certain death trap. "What would have prevented the army from saying they had killed a terrorist?" burst out Abu Samir, and his wife buried her head in her hands, her back trembling with silent weeping.

`I was one of them'

"Isn't it a shame?" responded Magrafta to Abu Samir's story, hugging and kissing him from time to time, emotional, fervid, grasping at every detail that was conclusive proof of the injustice done to his hosts. "And this is a family that in the massacre of 1929 saved Jews. Stress that. This is the thanks they get," he said, jumping out of his chair in his fervor.

"It was a pogrom, a pogrom," he cried. "This isn't just a house they've destroyed - they destroyed a museum. They harmed a respected individual, a pillar of society. Here in this very room sat Prof. Ehud Sprinzak [chairman of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, an expert on terror and the extreme right who was Yitzhak Rabin's advisor on terror] and ate grapes. Here they sat and talked, giving the feeling that coexistence is not beyond the mountains of the moon. This is a house of peace, a magnet. Look at this, a grandmother. They left them nothing, burned everything."

In fact, Magrafta has known Abu Samir since his youth. Magrafta, who was born in Bnei Brak to a family that came from Iran, left school when he was 14 and went to work in his father's carpet factory in Beit Shemesh, which had close ties with merchants from Hebron. Even after the factory burned down about 10 years ago and his father, who is close to kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kedouri, moved most of his activity to his electrical goods store in South Tel Aviv, the ties continued.

As a boy, Magrafta took in the troubles around him. He heard Mizrahi Jews cursing Arabs "from morning till night," as he puts it. "When they sit with them - what love, what kisses. That's the way it works with us." At the age of 19, when an Ashkenazi friend, a former pilot, denied that Magrafta had lent him all the savings he had accumulated with difficulty since childhood and the courts did not afford him any relief, he had a nervous breakdown. He had given the money on the basis of his friend's "word of honor," as if to a brother, and felt betrayed.

Magrafta felt that the "Ashkenazi establishment had decided his fate as a foregone conclusion." He wanted to run away, to cut himself off from Israel, to torture himself, and he fled to Hebron. His father's friends welcomed him with open arms. Every night he stayed with a different family, and that is how he came to know Abu Samir, who adopted him like a son. "I love him like a father. He's one of the few people to whom I'd donate a kidney," he says heatedly.

"I came here with such a feeling of having been hard done by and suddenly the acquaintanceship with the Arabs lifted my spirits. In Israel I had felt that if I wasn't Polish I wasn't anything, and suddenly I was one of them and speaking their language. I held my head up high all of a sudden, and I forgot about the racism," he says. During his years in Hebron he polished his Arabic, studied Islam with local sheikhs and cultivated a splendid Arab mustache. The sheikhs tried to persuade him to convert to Islam and offered him "the prettiest girl in Hebron," but he refused.

Then he waded into the footsteps of his father, a Likud activist and one of Avigdor Lieberman's men, who was an intermediary in the historic meeting between Rabbi Kedouri and Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, when the rabbi anointed him as the next prime minister. The young Magrafta was among the Likud toughs who guarded the entrance to Rabbi Kedouri's home in order to prevent Shimon Peres from also receiving the rabbi's blessing.

Yet afterward, Netanyahu did not know how to reward them, refused to meet them, "looked at me scornfully, like he wasn't answering," recalled Magrafta. Three years later he turned up in Barak's election campaign at the head of a small camp of people disappointed with the Likud.

During that whole period, he also developed strong ties to Hebron and found his way into the hearts of the big "ringleaders" of the Jewish settlers there. From them he received certification as "a Jew full of love for Israel," as the many letters of recommendation he gathered over time testify, from people ranging from Prof. Ehud Sprinzak to Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami. Contradictions do not bother him. After all, it is the nature of reality to be full of contradictions, and he is just its faithful servant. Anyway, he and his friends believe that there are both "gangs" and "good" settlers who live in Hebron by right and are defending themselves against Arab aggression.

Gradually, Magrafta found himself going around the alleys of Hebron with curious friends from Tel Aviv, soothing tempers and resolving disputes using his tried-and-true methods. For example, "Some settler hits an old man. Immediately a number of Palestinians gather and start to shout and one of them waves his kaffiyeh at the television cameras that immediately appear. Straightaway, I go over to the old man lying on the ground and shout; `Yallah, put him in an ambulance,' and everyone around gets confused, the soldiers don't know what to do. A Palestinian comes along on a bicycle and tries to make trouble and I say to him in his own language: `Scram, you son of a dog. A settler comes along who tries to annoy the Arabs and I grab him and say: `If you get any closer, that's it,' and finally I say to the company commander: "Arrest that one with the kaffiyeh - he's the source of the trouble."

Settlement of Mizrahim

It was from the Jewish settlers that Magrafta heard of Prof. Sprinzak, whom they admire for having "saved" the Jewish settlement at Tel Rumeida. There was talk of evacuating it after the Baruch Goldstein massacre, but he warned prime minister Rabin of a mass suicide by the settlers. "The professor," as Magrafta calls him, agreed to meet him. After he heard about his good connections with

ettlers and Arabs in Hebron, including heads of the Tanzim, and was impressed by his juicy Arabic, which is spiced with many quotations from the Koran, he was prepared to give Magrafta his sponsorship.

Thus, from the familiar crucible of distress, discrimination, Mizrahi ethnocentricity, racism, common Israeli brutality and justification for the occupation and the Jewish settlers in the territories, which in any case "are existing facts," as Magrafta puts it - a fairly dubious plan arose to set up a Jewish-Arab friendship association in Hebron, headed by Sprinzak. The dream: to obtain from the Civil Administration the release of houses in the heart of Hebron - property of Jewish absentees - and to move into them Mizrahi Israelis, who speak Arabic, understand "the Arab mentality" and are familiar with "Arab codes." The purpose: to moderate the profile of the Jewish settlers in Hebron, put out fires and be "a bridge to peace."

In Hebron, in stark contrast to Israeli policy, they have always been careful, in the framework of Jordanian law, not to confiscate the houses of the Hebron Jews; they have preserved ownership rights for the original heirs. Some were prepared to listen to this delusive plan; a plan that ostensibly buys reconciliation and mediation at the price of expanding the Jewish settlement in the city.

Before the outbreak of the intifada, Sprinzak had already obtained written agreement for some of his ideas - in secret - from the Palestinians and the heads of the Jewish community in Hebron. In a memorandum to former prime minister Ehud Barak in December, 1999, Sprinzak proposed giving Magrafta and the members of his group the role of soothers and mediators in Hebron, along with a number of "confidence-building" measures: turning Shuhada Street into a pedestrian mall, developing the old market and perhaps allowing the Kawasmeh family a branch of McDonald's there. In return, he proposed "a quiet expansion of Jewish construction in the Hebron area and the removal of the fences around the Jewish settlement, which create an atmosphere of `the Berlin wall.'"

But the Al-Aqsa Intifada reshuffled his cards. Magrafta and his friends began to concentrate on distributing food, blankets and clothing to the Palestinians of Hebron, with the help of people from the left such as Yoav Hess from Yesh Gvul and Yizhar Be'er from Keshev (The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel). These people are disgusted by any cooperation with "the crazy, ultra-rightist and messianic settlers of Hebron," according to Be'er.

Magrafta was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad on one of these trips about a year ago and released unscathed. His story made headlines. To this day he is convinced that were it not for his rooted "Arabness" he would not have been saved from death.

Now, he believes, the time has come to accelerate the settlement of Arabic-speaking Mizrahim in the heart of Hebron. Reservoirs of such settlers are not lacking, he promises. The sorting of the candidates has already begun. Most of them are small merchants, unmarried, who define themselves as people of the right and the center. Some of them have been active for some time now in Hebron. They bring with them memories of alienation and discrimination, the dregs of a political subculture and the imaginary world of the right in Israel. They amuse themselves with the idea of a binational state with a Jewish majority and the Arabization of Israel while preserving its Jewish character. Each of them must be approved by "the professor." Without his assent, none of them will enter Hebron, stressed Magrafta and his friends.

"This move will be led by the Mizrahim," enthused Magrafta. "Hebron will be a model and an example. It will begin there and culminate in the making of peace between Israel and the Arab world. Let no one forget that 60 percent of the inhabitants of Israel are Mizrahim, their character is Arab and they do not want to `Ashkenazify.' The Ashkenazim can develop ties with Europe and America and we'll see to the Arab states. It's a different world. You can't put a northerner [Ashkenazi] together with an Arab in Gaza or in Hebron. The Prophet Mohammed said long ago: `Anyone who lives with you for 40 days becomes one of you.'" Magrafta pronounces this in fine Arabic.

He scorns the Peace Now people from the bottom of his heart, and he hates "the extreme left." "We are field people. We're not like the Peace Now people who get huge budgets and don't do a thing," he bursts out. "I want to see one of them man enough to go into Hebron. He'd have his legs chopped off. The only common denominator we and the Ashkenazim have is this state, and I'm asking all those good-timers not to destroy it. If what the extreme left is looking for is to hurt the state, to hurt its security, it will shoot itself in the foot. I'm talking at a utopian, apocalyptic level, and the extreme left should know that before it realizes what is happening to it, we will sell it out. If we have to, we will even make an alliance against it with the Arabs."

At Abu Samir's house the distress of the occupation and the brutality is reflected everywhere. Magrafta tries to convince him that even if he helped him put his house back in shape, there was still the danger of the settlers returning and destroying it again. Only an investigating commission of the pogrom in Hebron, headed by Prof. Sprinzak, would be able provide a long-term answer. Abu Samir agrees with all his heart.

He is demanding an investigative commission, he repeats - exhausted, despairing and casting about for anyone who is prepared to help. "Headed by the professor," Magrafta reminds him in his deep voice. "Yes, headed by the professor," he nods. "We believe in the professor." He is demanding compensation, he stresses. After all, he lives in an area under Israel control and it is the army's job to protect him.

"The professor visited my home. He's a nice man, doesn't discriminate, is a man of peace," says Abu Samir. "He has good intentions of making peace between the sides, building joint playgrounds, a hospital and a swimming pool, but he can't deal with the Jewish settlers either. I said to the professor outright: `Bring the Jews who lived here before all the plots by the English and the Zionists, even if they aren't Mizrahim. They lived among us with honor. Bring them to live with us, but just not those who are living here now. Those are enemies of the State of Israel. They represent all its evil," he said as his anger flared.

And what about the Mizrahi Jews, asks Magrafta. "They are also desirable, on condition that they get the agreement of the legal owners of the Jewish assets to live in their houses," responds Abu Samir. "Who am I to tell the owners who they should move into their houses?" he adds with great caution.

Approved by the professor

"Itzik Magrafta is the key person in this story. Many people think he's a fantasist, but I believed in him and until now he has not disappointed me," related Prof. Ehud Sprinzak this week. "I said to him: `Itzik, go ahead with your strength and you will succeed. I will take part, I will give you backing, I will give you my name, I will give you everything.' We agreed that if in this way we save only one child in Hebron, the effort is worth it."

According to Sprinzak, in its day, the plan for settling Hebron with Magrafta's group enjoyed broad support, from Qadi al-Tamimi in Ramallah, who is known as the qadi of Palestine, all the way to Baruch Marzel, one of the leaders of the settlers in the heart of Hebron. The plan was brought to the attention of former prime minister Ehud Barak:, Ephraim Sneh, who was deputy defense minister at the time, and the current chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, who was GOC Central Command. "Even though it was all proceeding in a minor key, the chiefs knew about it," said Sprinzak.

Gradually it became clear, said Sprinzak, that it would be difficult to implement the plan with the agreement of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. "There are wonderful people there, but they told us explicitly; `If we don't have authorization from the rais, they'll slaughter us. There's no autonomy there, but a very tangled nest of vipers," was Sprinzak's learned opinion.

The energetic contacts came to an end with the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, he said, and Magrafta is now trying to revive them. "There is a lot of naivete here, but all in all he's a dear fellow. Every time he goes there, I worry for his life."