Spring 2007 was not expected to be a time of settler assertion. After the evacuation of 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza 20 months ago, Ehud Olmert was elected prime minister on a platform that included removing thousands more settlers from the West Bank and an end to the occupation of large swaths of that territory.
But much has changed in the past year. The militants of Hamas are in power in the Palestinian government, and Israel’s war with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah last summer has left Mr. Olmert politically weak.
Those who took over the Hebron building now say with confidence that they will stay for many decades.
“We know that we must say, ‘This is my place,’ and be determined to live in it,” said Yesca Levinger, 31, who is sharing a small room in the building with her husband and three children. [she grew up here in Shiloh, daughter of our neighbors]
“They finished licking their wounds,” said Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Haaretz. “They feel much stronger because there is a kind of consensus that the disengagement was a mistake. They paid the price for the mistake, they are the underdogs and everybody in the Israeli mainstream has to ask for their forgiveness. The government will be very careful not to touch them.”
On Tuesday, Israel’s Independence Day, thousands of advocates plan to march to the site of Homesh, a northern West Bank settlement that the government evacuated in 2005. This week, the Israeli news media quoted military officials offering approval of the march, but on Friday they appeared to reverse that decision. A spokesman for the Israeli Army said officers would “take legal action” against anyone who tried to enter the area.
...Mrs. Levinger is pursuing the same strategy as her father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who led the first group of Jews to settle in the area 39 years ago, just months after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 that led to the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
...Hebron, according to the Bible, is the first place in ancient Israel where the patriarch Abraham bought land. On that land is a tomb said to hold the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.
The newly seized building atop a barren dusty hill here has become another symbol in the battle among settlers, Palestinians and the Israeli government. But it also represents the diminishing hopes for any chance of Israel making a deal with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
“We have to put an end to this idea that if we give up our homes we will get something peaceful from terrorists,” said Yishai Hollender, a spokesman for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank.
“Have we learned nothing from our history, from Lebanon, from Gush Katif?” he added, referring to the largest bloc of settlements, Harvest Bloc in Hebrew, to be removed from Gaza and to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. “We have hope that there is or will be quiet, but there never is.”
The settlements are viewed by much of the world as illegal because they are built on land taken in war, and as an obstacle to peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
...For each of the last five years, the population of the settlements has grown by nearly 5 percent, twice the rate of the previous average growth, according to Peace Now, a group that opposes the settlements and closely tracks them. Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement less than a mile northeast of Hebron, has more than doubled in the last two decades, to 7,000 residents today. Hebron itself, considered to have some of the most uncompromising of the settlers, has some 700 Jews.
...For now, the settlers are calling their compound “House of Peace,” but are also considering “Martyrs’ Peak.” To express their displeasure, some of the Israeli news media have termed it the “House of Dispute.”
From the balconies, it is possible to see the curved terrain for several miles south, east and north. A few Israeli soldiers say they had a weekly training meeting on the roof there every Saturday, even before the settlers took over. Now, about a dozen of them are sleeping on the top floor every night.
It is not a luxury complex, but the residents are settling in. They have installed basic electrical wiring and plumbing in the last week, though there are still no functioning showers. The crews on the top floor are working quickly to install drywall over the bare concrete and put up their first few bedroom doors.
...“If they are not allowed to stay, it will create a terrible situation,” said Otniel Schneller, a member of Parliament and a settler who has helped the government negotiate with fellow settlers in the past and who supports giving up part of the West Bank under certain conditions. He said he could not think of an argument to persuade them to abandon the building in Hebron.
“Who do we have to talk to any more?” he said. “There is no Palestinian government. They call it a government, but it is not a government, it is a collection of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”