Jewish settlers anticipate being casualties of peace

Camp David talks may bring eviction from West Bank

July 19, 2000|By Mark Matthews | By Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIRYAT ARBA — KIRYAT ARBA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank - Raphael "Rafi" Blumberg contemplates the next possible dramatic turn in a life that brought him here from Glen Avenue in Baltimore and remarks that God has a sense of humor.

"Life is entertaining in the sense of not being certain what can happen tomorrow," he says. "If you look at it with detachment, you can enjoy it."

But the prospects are not very enjoyable these days for Blumberg and thousands of West Bank Jewish settlers whose fate is on the bargaining table between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David.

Firmly rooted in this Jewish settlement on the outskirts of the ancient city of Hebron, Blumberg, 44, sees nothing good for him, his family or his neighbors emerging from the Camp David peace summit.

"I'm optimistic that [Barak] will fail," he says.

Camp David poses a crisis for the three-decade enterprise inspired by a dream of settling Jews throughout the Biblical Land of Israel, "between the sea and the Jordan" - most important, Judea and Samaria, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The fate of thousands of settlers hangs in the balance.

Successive Israeli governments, defying world opinion and Arab fury, have either tolerated or encouraged expansion of settlements in the Palestinian heartland, allowing their populations to exceed 175,000.

But the Barak government knows it can't keep many of the settlements and expect peace from Palestinians demanding a coherent state in the West Bank and Gaza. At best, the government hopes to preserve large settlement "blocs" near the borders that Israel held before the 1967 war.

Like his sister Rivka, who lives with her family in another West Bank settlement called Elon Moreh, Blumberg has heard reports that the homes of 50,000 settlers, if not more, could fall outside sovereign Israeli territory in a final peace agreement. If this happens to them, it would mean being uprooted or living under Palestinian rule.

"It's not that I dislike peace, it's that the terms being created are unnatural and unlikely to lead to what I think of as peace," says Blumberg.

From Northwest Baltimore

Raised on Glen Avenue in Northwest Baltimore within a tightly knit Orthodox community, Blumberg believes that this land was given to Jews by God and speaks with reverence of the shrines that make Hebron the second holiest city for Jews after Jerusalem.

But it was convenience that first drew him here. Studying at a yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement outside Jerusalem, about to get married, he found an opportunity to live rent-free in an absorption center here.

Sixteen years later, owner of an apartment and the father of four, he is attached and says his spiritual connection has deepened. His children speak Hebrew at home. His father, Dr. Arnold Blumberg, a retired professor from Towson University, and his mother, Thelma, have an apartment at the settlement and spend five months a year visiting their grandchildren here.

Blumberg's reddish-gray beard and skullcap identify him with Kiryat Arba's many devout Jews. But his scholarly mien and soft-spoken manner contradict the settlement's image of angry militancy.

By day, he is writing a book about a beloved teacher at the Talmudical Academy in Baltimore, which he attended. The teacher, Rabbi Baruch Milikowsky, was among the students from the Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania who were rescued with the help of American Orthodox Jews and sheltered in Shanghai, China, during World War II. The book project is financed by wealthy alumni of the school.

Blumberg also translates Hebrew leaflets into English. He works in a separate cluttered apartment that he shares as an office with a scribe who prepares Hebrew documents by hand.

At night and on weekends, he helps in child-rearing duties with his wife Mona, an English-language secretary at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. Sabbath dinner is special. When his oldest son gets onto a heated political topic, Mona Blumberg is likely to say, "That's too much. Let's hear Torah thoughts," and Blumberg will deliver comments on the weekly Torah reading.

The family frequently has students as weekend guests, and Blumberg will walk with them on Saturday mornings to Hebron's holiest shrine, the tomb of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.

Cheek by jowl with the bustling Hebron marketplace, the shrine has for years been a source of violent tension between Kiryat Arba and its surrounding, overwhelmingly Muslim, Arab population, for whom the tomb is the Ibrahimi Mosque. Muslims also consider Abraham their patriarch.

The tension of Hebron has exploded many times, killing Jews and Arabs. One of the worst of those events was in 1994 when a deranged Kiryat Arba doctor, Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque during a packed service and sprayed the Muslim worshippers with automatic weapons fire, killing 29 and wounding more than 100 before he was set upon and beaten to death.

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