Kiryat Arba — About 40 people, including many children, rallied at the entrance to this Jewish settlement next to Hebron this week to tell the world that the Land of Israel belongs to them.
Like just about everyone else in the Middle East, these settlers are preoccupied by the specter of what will happen after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes his plea Friday to the United Nations Security Council — one that is essentially a unilateral declaration of independence.
Although the United States is expected to delay a vote on the issue of Palestinian statehood for weeks while attempts are made to bring the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table, people here are already bracing for the “morning after.”
“This is the only land in the world that belongs to the Jewish people,” said Hebron resident Tzippi Schlissler, a 46-year-old mother of 11, while handing out Israeli flags to her fellow demonstrators.
Schlisser, whose father, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, was stabbed to death in his Hebron home by a Palestinian 13 years ago, said Jews in the West Bank are prepared to defend themselves if necessary.
“We’re not violent, we won’t be violent, but if someone attacks us, we will fight back,” she vowed.
Carrying a sign at the rally proclaiming, “Judea belongs to the Jews,” Baruch Marzel, a far-right-wing settler who was a devotee of the late Meir Kahane, said his community is not relying solely on the Israeli military for protection.
“We’ve heard that 15 to 20 settlements in Judea and Samaria are going to be attacked,” Marzel said without elaborating.
Should that occur, he said, “we won’t turn the other cheek.”
On Monday, Abbas told journalists that the Palestinian public “will never return to an intifada; we will never return to violence. All our people will do is demonstrate peacefully inside the cities.”
If there is any violence, he intimated, it would be by Jewish settlers.
The Israeli government isn’t taking any chances on either front. It has permitted the Palestinian Authority to obtain riot-control materials, and on Sunday Palestinian police held a training exercise aimed at preventing potential protesters from reaching Israeli-controlled areas.
Quoting an unnamed senior Israeli police officer, the Associated Press said Israel’s UN vote-related security could cost $20 million. Part of that expense is a week of special training for one-quarter of the nation’s 28,000 police.
Israeli intelligence is also reportedly monitoring Palestinian blogs and Facebook groups for signs of intended violence. And security officials are also said to be closely watching settler extremists, some of whom set fire to two West Bank mosques earlier this month after the government removed three structures from the illegal Migron outpost.
While bracing for the worst, many Israelis and Palestinians believe, or at least hope, that law and order will prevail.
Yoram Meital, a professor at Ben Gurion University, predicted that “the vast majority” of Israelis and Palestinians would not use force during the coming weeks. But he said he could not rule out attacks by “settler extremists or Palestinian radicals” that could get “out of control and take [Israelis and Palestinians] into a more severe crises.”
Samir Awad, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, similarly predicted a relatively quiet period because the Palestinian public has embraced “peaceful nonviolent resistance” during this week’s mass protests in towns and cities all throughout the West Bank.
He said the Palestinian public understands the many hurdles its leaders must jump over before statehood becomes a reality and added that they don’t have high expectations from the UN.
“They understand that this is the time to test whether the U.S. is an honest broker, and whether the Israelis are willing to pay the price for permanent peace in the region — and I don’t think they are,” Awad observed.
For Israelis and Palestinians to ultimately have peace, both sides will have to make major concession, according to Ambassador Uri Savir, Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo peace accords and founder of the Peres Center for Peace.
“I’m worried, because there needs to be a courageous decision on both sides to find a formula to jumpstart the peace process,” Savir said.
Israel, he said, needs to recognize that a Palestinian state “will be based on the ’67 lines with mutually agreed land swaps … [and the Palestinians] will need to agree to something like two states for two nations, meaning that the Jewish nation has its own homeland.”
In the meantime, he said, Palestinians need to continue to lay the groundwork for the sovereign country they are pressing for. Savir said Abbas’ government has done “a very fine job in terms of nation building in the West Bank during the past two years — I’m talking about their budget, their ministries, their security forces, the level of transparency.”
Despite the progress it has made, the Palestinian Authority still has a great deal of “internal” work to do before it can be a viable peace partner with Israel, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University.
First, he said, the Palestinians must end their “civil war with Hamas” and form a “united leadership.” Then, Steinberg said, it must “have a realistic strategy to deal with refugee claims [and] its own road map of compromise.”
Suheir Hashimeh, a resident of east Jerusalem, said the Palestinians know they must be patient.
“Abbas told the people they shouldn’t have high expectations after his meetings at the UN,” he said. “Abbas said problems need to be solved through negotiations.”
But some Israelis are loath to just sit back while the Palestinians take unilateral action in the UN, thereby breaking the Oslo agreement in which they pledged to resolve everything at the negotiating table and not to take unilateral steps.
Danny Danon, a deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member from the governing Likud Party, said during a visit to New York this week that should Abbas take unilateral action at the UN, he would go forward with his bill calling for the annexation of all Jewish communities in the West Bank, without drawing the communities’ boundaries. He said 14 of the 27 Likud members of the Knesset support the bill.
Asked why such a bill had not been passed in June so the Palestinians would know in advance how Israel would respond should they go to the UN, Danon said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not endorsed it.
“I was pushing him, but [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak and [Deputy Prime Minister Dan] Meridor were pushing him to negotiate using the ’67 lines with land swaps, to compromise on Jerusalem and to agree to a symbolic right of return [for Palestinian refugees],” he said.
But Danon said he is convinced that if the Palestinians take a unilateral move that puts them in a better position, “we must put ourselves in a better place.”
“If there is an actual vote in the UN, pressure on the prime minister to take action would be stronger,” Danon said. “The Palestinians have to know there will be a price to pay for their action. …. If the UN only initiates a process, it would be easier for him to sit still.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he too believes the Palestinians “cannot be allowed to take unilateral actions while Israel sits like a shlemiel and does nothing. That is not in the cards.”
“If I were the Israeli prime minister, I would say no withdrawal from the West Bank — you get nothing until you recognize the right of Israel as a Jewish state to exist,” he added. “Israel should take unilateral steps short of causing another intifada, but it’s up to the Israeli cabinet to decide what steps.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that until the Palestinians’ actions in the UN play out, it is impossible to know how to respond.
“Is he [Abbas] going to deliver a letter to the UN, and if so what will it demand?” he asked. “Will the Quartet [Russia, the UN, the U.S. and the European Union] come up with a statement? The Security Council could postpone action, and if the Palestinians went to the General Assembly, what would they ask it to vote on?”
“I’m not going to tell Israel what it should do, and I’m not sure they know yet what they would be reacting to,” Foxman added. “And if Congress should cut off aid to the Palestinian security services, I don’t know how productive that would be in terms of the future. … Israel would be in the right to take all sorts of action, but it has to decide what’s best.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.