Fighting To Be The Victim

A BEAMING YASIR ARAFAT, DRAWN IN ugly disproportion, places a flower on the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer last month. The Palestine Liberation Organization chief thanks Goldstein-for the U.N. resolution condemning the atrocity, for foreign troops that will be sent to help protect Palestinians "and for everything to come." The crude cartoon, which appeared last week in The 'Jerusalem Post, captures the frustration of many on the Israeli right: that Palestinians are profiting as victims of the Hebron massacre. It's a role that many Jewish settlers insist on for themselves. "We must be the victims," insists Noam Arnon, spokesman for 415 Jews living among 110,000 Arabs in Hebron. "We are the victims."

Nobody wants to be killed, maimed or persecuted, of course. But in the Mideast there's a perception that victims reap political rewards. in the wake of the massacre, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators last week moved toward agreement on new security arrangements for Hebron. Israel tentatively agreed to allow Palestinian police and lightly armed international observers into Hebron. Full-fledged talks on withdrawal from most of Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho were expected to resume this week. Although dismantling Jewish settlements was not negotiated, Israeli officials hint that they may take steps to move Jews from Hebron as a "security measure."

Meanwhile, Jews and Arabs debate who is suffering most. Israelis talk about the "incremental massacre" of 35 Israelis in attacks since the signing of the preliminary peace accord in September. Palestinians counter that 69 of their brethren have been killed since the Hebron bloodbath. Both sides had new bodies to count last week. Israeli soldiers killed three armed Arab guerrillas in Hebron; during the siege a pregnant woman was killed by stray fire. A Jewish settler later shot dead an Arab truckdriver praying at roadside. Arab attackers struck their own blows, killing one Israeli and wounding several others in the occupied territories. Yet the bloodshed didn't begin yesterday or even a few decades ago. Arabs date their suffering to the first influx of Zionist immigrants to Palestine around the turn of the century. Some militant Jewish settlers describe their struggle in Holocaust terms, saying the government wants to make Biblical lands Judenrein (empty of Jews). Other right-wingers invoke more ancient images, like Masada, the Dead Sea fortress where Jews committed mass suicide in A.D. 73 rather than bow to a Roman siege.

Palestinians have new battles to prepare for. Moderates in Gaza, aware that they'll soon be policing their own streets, are opening modest sports clubs to give young toughs something to do other than throw stones. "All these kids have seen blood," says Hamed al-Kuren, 22, who spent three years in jail for throwing a Molotov cocktail at soldiers and other resistance activities. "We want to explain how they will live in peace." Kuren tells the youths that "Jewish children were victims in the past just like you were victims." Here, that's still a hard sell.