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In Hebron, Noam Arnon sits tight and worries

As the U.S. increases pressure on Israel to dismantle settlements, Hebron residents wonder who they can turn to.

Jewish settlers mourn near the scene of an attack in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin, near Hebron, Apr. 2, 2009. A Palestinian with an axe and a knife killed a 13-year-old Israeli boy and wounded a seven-year-old boy in Bat Ayin two days after the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu took power. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

HEBRON, West Bank — He’s stayed in the largest town in the West Bank for 36 years, even though most of its 167,000 residents want him to leave. He’s just won a $50,000 prize for his “Zionist activities” there. His country’s new government is vilified around the world because it’s seen as supportive of people just like him.

You’d think Noam Arnon would be feeling a lot more secure than he is.

But the 54-year-old leader of Hebron’s 700 Israeli settlers is worried that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t stand up to a new U.S. administration that promises to be tougher on Israel’s continued construction on occupied land.

“I know that we can’t trust him,” Arnon says, as he enters the ancient Cave of the Patriarchs, burial place of the biblical couples Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. “[Netanyahu] is not a strong man. He’s very weak. Under pressure he collapses very fast.”

It’s commonplace among diplomats and foreign correspondents to refer to Arnon as “crazy.” After all, he’s bringing up his eight children in a hostile city whose municipality is run by Hamas. But the tag comes mainly from his opposition to the idea that Israelis ought to leave their settlements in return for peace. If the 282,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank are generally seen as an obstruction in peace talks, the residents of the Jewish Quarter of Hebron are viewed as violent extremists reveling in the hatred that surrounds them.

Arnon, of course, doesn’t see it that way, and he’s not the only one. In a few weeks he’ll receive the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism awarded by Irving Moskowitz, a Florida resident mainly known for his support for controversial attempts by Israeli nationalists to plant colonies in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. One reason Moskowitz decided to give the award to a Hebron settler was in recognition of the anniversary of a massacre of Jews in the city by Palestinians 80 years ago. It was followed by the expulsion of the Jewish residents, who only returned in the 1970s.

Until the massacre of 1929, as Arnon likes to point out, Jews had lived in Hebron since Abraham arrived 4,000 years ago. The patriarch bought the cave over which King Herod built the existing massive edifice at the time of Christ in the same style as his Great Temple in Jerusalem. (“Herod,” says Arnon, “was a complicated personality, but he knew how to build.” Which is what many people say about Moskowitz.)

The memory of the massacre, like the hostility of Hebron’s Arabs, only serves to strengthen Arnon’s determination to stay in the dusty, deserted quarter of the town where Israelis are permitted to reside. I walked with Arnon through the once-bustling market area between the Cave of the Patriarchs and the 120-year-old Hadassah building in which he lives. The Arab shops have been shuttered for five years for the security of Arnon and the other settlers.

“Don’t blame me for these shops being closed,” he says. “Blame the terrorists.”

Six paratroopers swap their red berets for helmets as we pass. They go single file into a narrow alley in the casbah, built in the time of Turkish rule. As they step out of sight, each one locks and loads his M-16 and takes a deep breath as though diving into water.