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Jewish Settlers Create New Conflict

July 2, 1998

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A curious procession wound its way through the crowded market in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Two muscular Israeli security guards, sporting dark sunglasses and packing pistols, were followed by a troupe of toddlers. The kids, holding hands and merrily bouncing along behind the big men, looked like ducklings following their mother.

Suddenly, the group stopped.

A head count revealed that 5-year-old Ronit Rabinovitz had been left behind at the kindergarten after she had slipped out for a moment to buy a popsicle. The private guards _ all former army commandos _ nervously lit cigarettes as they radioed headquarters.

``OK,″ called out a deep, clipped voice over the walkie-talkie. ``Stay calm. You keep going to point B. Meanwhile, we will send the fox patrol to the base to pick up Rabinovitch, and move her to point C. After you drop off the kids at B, swing back to C and take Rabinovitch home to D.″

Ronit and her classmates are no ordinary 5-year-olds.

They are the children of the Ateret Cohanim community, a settlement group trying to move as many Jews as possible into Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and thus undercut Palestinian claims to the traditionally Arab eastern sector as a capital.

Sixty-five Jewish families live in 40 fortified compounds in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, protected by private guards who the settlers say are heavily subsidized by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Netanyahu openly supports the settlers’ objectives, he has been circumspect about whether the government is funding their campaign on the ground.

Domestically and internationally, there is opposition to that campaign. A majority of Palestinians see the settlers as invaders, and the two sides clash regularly. Israeli peace activists, many of whom believe Palestinians should be given control over the Old City, regularly stage protests. At the same time, the United States has condemned any expansion of the Jewish settlements at such a sensitive time in peace negotiations.

The settlers, however, believe they are making Jewish history and brush aside the day-to-day hardships of living among thousands of Palestinians who regard them with suspicion and hate.

``We are blessed to be able to live here,″ said 40-year-old Raya Cohen as she held her two daughters, ages 4 and 8, who had just made it home safely from school.

Still, two Ateret Cohanim members have been killed in less than a year in nighttime street ambushes by Palestinian militants, and settlers have to call for armed escorts whenever they want to go to work, shop or pray. Some take their evening stroll on the roof so they can have a little privacy without a guard.

Cohen and her husband, Yossi, were the first Jewish couple to move into the Muslim Quarter 19 years ago. The kitchen window of their second-floor apartment looks out directly onto the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine, built on the site where the Jewish Temple once stood.

In the living room, old photographs of famous rabbis and crayon drawings fight for shelf space with rows of religious books.

Directly across the hall from the Cohens’ apartment is a Jewish study center, where bearded men sway over holy books.

But up the stairs from the study center, a Palestinian family lives in one room, having refused top-dollar offers from settlers to sell. The Palestinians have strung up a green sheet inside the door _ to serve as an additional divider between them and the settlers.

A little redheaded Jewish girl playing marbles in the stairwell offered up the information that ``those Arabs over there are known terrorists.″

In the Cohens’ cramped apartment, while Mrs. Cohen hurried to make lunch and get dressed for work at the Hadassah Mt. Scopus Hospice outside the Old City, four neighbors’ kids stopped by to play games on the Cohens’ computer.

The bleeps of the machine mixed with the pious murmurs of Christian pilgrims walking along the Via Dolorosa _ Jesus’ traditional route to the crucifixion _ just an alley away. A Muslim call to prayer drifted through a window.

Mrs. Cohen said that when she first settled in the Muslim Quarter, friends refused to visit her, fearing for their safety. Her mother thought she was mad. Her left-wing sister-in-law forbade her children to come for play dates.

``I volunteered to be the crazy woman when I moved here. Only a crazy person can go first. But it needs to be done,″ said Mrs. Cohen as she emerged from the bedroom in her white long skirt and matching head covering.

Mrs. Cohen usually wakes up at the crack of dawn. That’s when her husband heads off to morning prayers at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Jewish Temple.

The Wall is a three-minute walk away, but Mrs. Cohen said she makes him wait for a security escort. Later, she gets her kids ready for school and sends them off, sandwich bags in hand, with the compound patrol at 7:45 a.m.

On mornings when she is not working at the hospice she shops for groceries. From Arab merchants in her street, she only buys canned goods. She goes to the Jewish Quarter, 20 minutes away on foot, to buy bread, eggs and kosher meat, dragging her shopping cart along the cobblestone alleys.

Many of her Palestinian neighbors know her, some even by name, but there is no eye contact when she passes them on the street.

The settler women meet about three times a month at one of the homes to listen to guest speakers talk about issues ranging from child rearing to the weekly Torah portion.

After settler Haim Korman was stabbed to death in May, a child psychologist talked to the mothers about dealing with their children’s fears.

``When all is said and done, one’s life has to be lived according to one’s beliefs,″ said Mrs. Cohen. ``I believe in a Jewish Jerusalem and therefore I am here.″