• U.S.

ISRAEL: The Descendants of Abraham

4 minute read

Across the stony, sere landscape, the marchers trudged last week—40,000 strong. They were young and old, parents with infants, grandparents with dogs and cats, lovers holding hands. They carried sleeping bags, musical instruments, rifles, pistols and submachine guns. As black clouds stacked up over the Samarian foothills, a chill wind whipped through the marchers’ ranks; many of the men had to secure their yarmulkes (skullcaps) with bobby pins. Still, they were in a festive mood, strumming guitars and singing patriotic songs around their campfires. From all over Israel, they had descended upon the ancient city of Jericho for a 24-mile march to the town of Bethel. At Bethel, ten miles north of Jerusalem, they erected a large white banner. It read: “The Lord said unto Abraham … Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and the breadth of it; for I will give it unto you.”

The marchers, most of whom are Orthodox Jews, belong to Israel’s Gush Emunin (Group of the Faithful), who take Jehovah’s commandment from the Book of Genesis with fanatic literalness. To them, it means that Jews, as Abraham’s descendants, have a God-given birthright to the West Bank of the Jordan. For it was at Bethel that the Lord is said to have commanded Abraham.

Other people who also believe they are descendants of Abraham, the Israeli-occupied West Bank’s 650,000 Arabs, were outraged by the march and what it symbolized. In Ramallah, about three miles south of the festive marchers at Bethel, throngs of Arabs from all over the West Bank gathered to mourn the death of a Ramallah man and a boy and show their solidarity against the Gush Emunin marchers and the Israeli occupation. The man, Kalil Issa, 42, was gunned down on the main street of Ramallah by a local councilman suspected of collaborating with the Israeli occupiers. The boy, Jamil Arafat Hamis Jum, 6, had been killed by Israeli soldiers quelling an Arab demonstration against the killing of Issa. (The Israelis claimed that a soldier’s gun went off accidentally, but the Arabs charged that the soldiers had fired deliberately.)

P.L.O. Flags. As the mourners carried the two coffins through the dusty streets to the stone Ramallah mosque, demonstrators sympathetic with the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization appeared, waving P.L.O. flags and a banner reading NO SETTLEMENT IN PALESTINE. In many other West Bank towns, villagers angered by the Gush Emunin march set up roadblocks of flaming tires and threw rocks at Israeli troops. In Nablus, Israeli soldiers opened fire on rioters, killing one Palestinian and wounding nine others.

Though anti-Israeli demonstrations by West Bank Arabs had been increasing since February, the march clearly provoked last week’s riots. Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin called Gush Emunin’s action a challenge to government authority and a needless affront to Arab sensitivities. Still, the government has been ambivalent about the extremist group’s wish to settle on West Bank soil. It has been unable—or unwilling—to prevent the zealots from stealthily moving tents and equipment into the occupied territories and staking out three sites that are now existing communities. While condemning these illegal settlements, the government itself has sanctioned 58 Jewish paramilitary settlements, 16 of them in the Jordan Valley —despite arguments by the U.S. that these communities will make more difficult the return of captured lands in any Middle East peace agreement.

In fact, the Rabin government may privately welcome the Gush Emunin’s dramatic demonstrations for Jewish settlements; Jerusalem can then explain to Washington that it cannot oppose the people’s will. On the day after the march, the Premier toured the official settlements along the Jordan River and declared that “the establishment of settlements along this line makes it the defense line of Israel.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com