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Johanna Mcgeary/Hebron

Leah Hochbaum giggles a lot for a radical fanatic. But the 26-year-old mother of two from New York City possesses a will of steel and a boundless faith that she is obeying God’s commandment. When she heard Manhattan Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach say it was a Jew’s duty to reclaim all the land of biblical Israel, she believed, and she came, not just to the Holy Land but to the very heart of the struggle, to the West Bank city of Hebron. After a year in the confines of the Avraham Avinu quarter, one of six minuscule fortified enclaves inhabited by some 400 Jews amid the city’s 100,000 Palestinians, she has no doubts and no regrets. It’s simple, she says, as she nuzzles her two-year-old son, “If I want to live anywhere in Israel, there is no reason I can’t be here.”

Yet this ancient city, dusty and undeveloped but holy to all faiths, is steeped in bloodshed and tension, a tangled maze of roadblocks, cement barricades and metal spikes manned by hundreds of Israeli soldiers to keep militant Jews and militant Palestinians apart. Both sides have grown hard as Palestinians stab and stone the settlers and Jews shoot and vandalize their neighbors in regular tit-for-tat violence.

Thanks to the immense difficulty of safeguarding the lives of 400 Jews like Hochbaum who refuse to leave, Hebron has emerged as the thorniest issue in the peace process so far. Despite an agreement signed by the previous Israeli government to pull back its troops and hand over most of the city to the Palestinian Authority, the redeployment has been delayed time and again for seven months while Israel seeks ways to provide sufficient “security” for the settlers. As Palestinian frustration threatens to unravel the peace, many Israelis fear the nation’s fate is being held hostage by a tiny band of religious extremists. Even if Israeli forces in the city move back soon, the settlers’ uncompromising zeal could touch off confrontations that might consume any hope of permanent peace.

Marking the first anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last week, Israelis found themselves as bitterly at odds as ever over the exchange of land for peace. The intensity of their division was graphically illustrated by a shocking video clip from Hebron, played again and again on Israeli TV, showing a splash of boiling-hot tea contorting the face of Knesset member and prominent peace advocate Ya’el Dayan, daughter of war hero Moshe Dayan. According to eyewitnesses, she was approached by Yisrael Lederman, who asked, “Do you want tea?” Dayan responded, “Please.” Then Lederman, later revealed to be a right-wing extremist and convicted murderer, allegedly tossed the steaming brew into her face. Dayan suffered second-degree burns; Lederman turned himself in two days later. Dayan lamented in the daily Yediot Aharonot that nothing had improved since the assassination. Political extremism in Israel, she said, is “a hothouse that is continuing to breed something terrible. If we do not do anything substantial, we will fall apart.”

Among the settlers, Baruch Marzel is one of the most messianic. Born in the U.S., the disciple of murdered ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane discarded his U.S. passport 12 years ago, soon after sneaking several trailers onto a hilltop in Hebron’s city center. His settlement of Tel Rumeida, home to seven families, is still considered “temporary” by the Israeli government but, contends Marzel, “it is my last stop in this world.” Though under house arrest as the reputed leader of Kahane’s outlawed Kach movement, he says uncompromisingly, “It is only a matter of time until there is war between the Jews and Arabs, and it will start from here.” He believes that redeployment will wreck the peace accords, and he is glad. “The Arabs have to understand this is a Jewish state, and they have got to leave. Peacefully if they want; if not, we will make them. Just let me rule Hebron for 24 hours, and they would leave. If they strike at me, I will hit back five times harder. The only solution is to be stronger than they are.”

Not all the settlers are as aggressively hostile as Marzel, but they are no less determined to stay put. Down the hill at Beit Hadassah, a heavily guarded apartment building, where the playground is ringed in barbed wire, residents are trying to tone down their image. Noam Arnon, the community’s amiable spokesman, emphasizes the spiritual goals of the settlers in a bid to win support from mainstream religious Jews. He talks of the long history of Jewish habitation there near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, revered as the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives, broken only by a 1929 Arab massacre. “It was an injustice for Jews to be uprooted from here,” he says, “when this is such a holy city and the foundation of our history.” Hochbaum says what is precious to her is that her husband can pray daily at the tomb.

Muted or assertive, though, the arguments are the same in every household. Many settlers came from America, believing they were ordained by God to take back the whole of their biblical land, and if they cede ground in Hebron, then Jews could lose all of Israel. “We are the head of the spear,” says Nomi Horovitz, “guarding not only Hebron but all of our country.”

Up to the very last, the Hebron Jews are fighting to stave off the military redeployment. Two weeks ago, their leaders unveiled a video suggesting what the army’s departure would mean: Palestinian sharpshooters on hilltops and in building windows, targeting settler children inside their vulnerable compounds. “It scared me,” says Hochbaum. “I don’t believe making peace should endanger us.” Of the Palestinians, she says, “I just don’t trust them.”

Neither does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused to contemplate pulling back until the peace accords were modified to improve security. Both sides are under intense diplomatic pressure to get past the Hebron obstacle, and have entrusted the talks to their top negotiators. After three weeks of up and down progress, an agreement is anticipated any day now. During a tour of the Middle East last week, French President Jacques Chirac attempted to join the process, advocating statehood for the Palestinians. Said an Israeli official coldly: “We’re not going to let France have even one foot inside the door of the negotiations.”

Whether or not there is an agreement on Hebron, the Jews there already reject any new arrangements for their community. When the army goes, says Arnon, the settlers will rely on their own armed “civil defense” units for protection from Palestinian troublemakers. “We aren’t just going to wait in our homes,” he explains, “but are going to go out and prevent them from approaching.” Hebron’s Palestinians will not tolerate that. Warns a militant local leader called Nadir, with ties to the violent Islamist group Hamas: “Neither the Palestinian police nor the Israeli army will be able to protect the settlers. They are an alien body, and the only way to achieve their security is to carry their bodies out of here.” If peace must come through Hebron, it will be traversing a war zone.

–With reporting by Lisa Beyer/Jerusalem and Jamil Hamad/Hebron

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