by Patrick Goodenough

HEBRON is not "'just another West Bank town", differing from Jenin or Bethlehem only inasmuch as it is home to a tiny Jewish minority living among a hundred thousand Muslims. Other towns in Judea-Samaria already handed to the PLO have been important, not least of all Shechem, where Joseph's Tomb is located. But they pale in comparison to Hebron. The enormity of the act of surrendering Hebron to Arab control cannot be overstated.

NOT FOR NOTHING did the noted historian Paul Johnson begin his acclaimed 1987 work, A History of the Jews, with the words: "'The Jews are the most tenacious people in history. Hebron is there to prove it ... This is where the 4 000-year history of the Jews, as far as it can be anchored in time and place, began."

Since the founder of the nation of Israel, Abraham, bought the plot of land where his tomb still stands today, Hebron has been conquered and controlled by the Israelites, Edomites, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Franks, Mamluks, Ottomans, British and Jordanians, until finally, in 1967, Israel brought it once more under Jewish sovereignty.

And across the centuries, Jews have always lived there - surviving severe discrimination, repression and murderous assaults - until in 1929 and 1936, pogroms perpetrated by the forebears of today's Palestinian residents of the city finally severed that continuous thread. In 1970, Jewish life there was revived, and has thrived - under often arduous conditions - ever since.

Supporters of continued Jewish control over Hebron are alone in highlighting the history of the Jewish community there. In contrast, those who promote the Palestinians' right to dominate the entire area dismiss the historical element as an irrelevance. Yasser Arafat has done so, as has former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Their proposition, repeatedly expressed in various ways, was that history could teach nothing, that Israelis and Arabs had to look only to the future if they were to achieve the vision of a "'new Middle East".

But history is all-important in this part of the world. It is the ancient Jewish link with Hebron which makes the Oslo-inspired demand that it be relinquished to Arafat's control a travesty. The land has been bought, paid for both in silver by Abraham, and in Jewish blood ever since.

The Jews living there are not prepared to withdraw - and in the light of the town's history, why indeed should they?

STATEMENTS by Arab leaders that the Jews in Hebron should leave the area have not triggered the expected outrage.

PLO Authority Local Government Minister Sa'eb Erekat, generally described as a "'moderate", argues that "'the most realistic solution will be to remove the Jewish settlers from Hebron" (Ha'aretz, October 10). Arafat advisor Ahmed Tibi adds a note of ominous realism: "'There is no place for mutual existence of peace with the settlers, especially with those in Hebron, and anyone saying otherwise is lying" (Ha'aretz, Nov 5).

Calls to ethnically-cleanse any town in the world of its Jewish inhabitants would attract accusations of anti-Semitism: the judenrein concept remains far too fresh in the world's collective memory.

Yet suggestions by Arab spokesmen that the Jewish community be removed from a town where Jews have lived for longer than any other place on earth, are met with mute acquiescence by the West.

The memories of 1929 and 1936 are still vivid. Then, Arabs turned with Islamic-driven fury on their Jewish neighbours. For many of today's Hebronites, who harbour hatred and resentment of the Jews living among them, there can be no prospect of a peaceful future as long as the enemy remains in their midst.

The days ahead are fraught with uncertainty, and no-one can predict what will happen. Of one thing there is little doubt: Jewish blood may yet again stain the age-old stones of Hebron.

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