It was a quiet day in Hebron. Yitzhak and Oriya Pas, two Jews who chose to settle in Judaism's second holiest city, were taking their 10-month-old baby for a stroll. From a hundred or more yards away, Israeli authorities say, a Palestinian Arab sniper put the baby's head in the crosshairs and killed her with a single rifle shot.
The girl's name was Shalhevet, which means "flame." It may well be too much to hope that her murder will illuminate our understanding of what is happening in the war against the Jewish state. But even against the backdrop of the bloody anti-Jewish riots that swept the West Bank and brought the war to Jerusalem, it is hard to think of a killing as cold-blooded as this.
This is not a case of a child being caught in the crossfire. It is different from the tragedy of Muhammad al-Durrah, the young Arab boy who was famously photographed crouching and clinging to his desperate father as the two of them sought to avoid the gunfire that moments later claimed Muhammed's life. Nor was it the case of someone snapping under stress, as happened when an Israeli soldier, Baruch Goldstein, murdered Arabs as they knelt in prayer at a shrine in Hebron. The killing of Shalhevet Pas, Israel's military authorities believe, was a premeditated, precision assassination by a sniper a long way from his target.
Which is one reason why it elicited not even a note of remorse from the Palestinian Arab leadership. Reuters did manage to find a member of Yasser Arafat's cabinet in Amman, Jordan, at a meeting of Arab dictators exploring ways to keep financing the attacks on Israel. It quoted the minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, as saying there is no evidence that the baby was killed by Palestinian fire. "We believe that the atrocities of the occupation are responsible for all crimes that have claimed the lives of Palestinians and Israelis," he said.
The war against the Jews of Hebron began long before Yasser Arafat came of killing age, and in the struggle between East and West in the Middle East, Hebron plays a seminal role. Jews have lived in Hebron for centuries, not far from the Cave of the Patriarchs, burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But in a classic pogrom in 1929, the Arabs turned on them and began a slaughter that claimed the lives of more than 60 religious Jews, including women and children.
The pro-communist left sided with the Arabs and sought to portray the killings as a grass-roots uprising against British imperialism, for those were the days of the British Mandate in Palestine. But the anticommunist left understood the killings for what they were and began to swing behind the logic of a Jewish state.
This group included the Jewish Forward newspaper, which was allied with the anticommunist labor movement and, much to the astonishment of many on the left, ran out a famous editorial. It sided squarely with the Jews of Hebron. It also contrasted Hebron with earlier pogroms, such as Kishinev, where Jews "were slaughtered like Oxen in a butcher shop." In Hebron, it reported, yeshiva students fought back against their attackers, filling Jews the world over with admiration.
Nonetheless, the Jews were largely, if not completely, driven from Hebron by the pogroms of 1929. They didn't go back in any numbers until after Israel's victory in the Six Day War of 1967. Years later, when I was editing the Forward, I more than once went back and read that editorial to try to understand the roots of the left's loyalty to the Arab struggle--and, for that matter, the eagerness with which the Clinton administration tried to pressure Israel's government into pulling out of Hebron.
Even at Oslo, Israel had refused to do so entirely. It clung to the Cave of the Patriarchs. But it did agree to turn over the remaining parts of Hebron in pieces. The Oslo map in Hebron gave the commanding ground dominating the Jewish neighborhood to the Palestinian Authority. One such domineering position was Abu Sneina Hill, where Shalhevet's assassin lay in wait.
Israel's commitment to pull out of Hebron was given by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin back in 1995. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiated hard on the details, fearing the kind of tragedy that has just occurred. Security arrangements agreed to at the time even included limiting long-range rifles in the hands of Palestinians. But the Clinton administration cajoled and pressured Mr. Netanyahu, and in January 1997, he and Yasser Arafat signed a protocol on Hebron. Within weeks, Israel began pulling back, setting the stage for Shalhevet's murder.
What Israel's new premier, Ariel Sharon, is going to do now is an important test, and not only because there is an Arab summit in progress. The Jews living in Hebron are reported to be in an angry mood and moving to take matters into their own hands. Reuters quoted an Israeli colonel as saying that the Israeli army might have to restrain the settlers.
Mr. Sharon, however, issued a statement saying he "holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for the instances of violence and terror which brought about the murder today of the baby and the wounding of her father in Hebron."
If it turns out that Monday's assassination marks the end of Israel's retreat from Hebron, the little flame of Shalhevet Pas will burn in Jewish memory for generations.
Mr. Lipsky is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears Wednesdays.
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