In Crossfire of Mideast Conflict, Samaritans Look for a Future Torn between Two Sides of Arab-Israeli Dispute, They Hope a Map Redrawn in Peace Won't Leave Their Tiny Community Again Divided

By Ilene R. Prusher, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

In Crossfire of Mideast Conflict, Samaritans Look for a Future Torn between Two Sides of Arab-Israeli Dispute, They Hope a Map Redrawn in Peace Won't Leave Their Tiny Community Again Divided


Ilene R. Prusher, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Israel withdrew from this city of 130,000 two years ago, few Palestinians had any qualms about seeing the "occupation army" go.

Except for about 300 nonPalestinian residents who had developed good relations with the Israelis: the Samaritans.

During the three decades of Israeli rule, the Samaritans had enjoyed special status as intermediaries between Israeli authorities and Palestinians. Some welcomed the Israelis like long-lost cousins. Most of all, for the Samaritans, Israel's conquest of the West Bank in 1967 meant one important thing: being reunited with an equally tiny community of Samaritan relatives in the Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv. Since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the two parts of the community had been cut off from each other. Jordanian authorities - who then controlled the West Bank - allowed the Holon Samaritans to come to Nablus only once a year for special Passover rites on Mt. Gerizim, the Samaritan holy place. Now, while Samaritans welcome efforts toward Arab-Israeli reconciliation, they fear for their future under a final peace settlement. When borders are eventually drawn between Israel and a Palestinian state, the Samaritans worry they will be separated by a border that will once again cut one half of the 611-member community off from the other. "We don't want a return to those days," says Benjamim Tsedaka, a leader of the Samaritans in Holon. While growing up, he remembers being barred from visiting his Nablus family and the holy mountain during the rest of the year, other than at Passover, and some years completely. Nowadays, he makes the hour-long drive several times a week to visit and to deliver the Samaritan newspaper he founded and edits. "The main point is freedom of access to the mountain in any situation," says Mr. Tsedaka, whose faith holds that the all-important binding of Isaac by Abraham happened on Mt. Gerizim near Nablus, not on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Given special status In an attempt to prevent the two Samaritan communities from being separated by checkpoints and changing political sands, Israel agreed to provide all of the Nablus Samaritans with Israeli passports two years ago. That allowed them to travel freely to Israel, which most Palestinians without special working papers have not been able to do since the 1993 Oslo accords were signed. But the Samaritan acceptance of Israeli documents angered some local Palestinians, who saw this as a form of identification with the Israelis - a taboo of which Muslim residents have long been suspicious. The Samaritans had received some assistance and privileges from the Israelis, who set up a modern Hebrew study center for them. Then, a year after the 1987 outbreak of the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, the Samaritans sought a neutral refuge from the violence and moved from Nablus to secluded Mt. Gerizim on the outskirts of town. That has sometimes put them on the fringe of Palestinian society. "The Arabs tell us all the time that 'you are Jews,' but we try to explain that we are part of the children of Israel, from two of the 12 tribes," says Farouk Raja Samari, the secretary of the Nablus Samaritans. Since the Palestinian Authority took over in Nablus, President Yasser Arafat has been trying to show that he can be more magnanimous to the Samaritans than the Israelis were. He appointed a Samaritan to the 88-seat legislative council - an otherwise popularly elected body - a generous gift considering that a tiny fraction of 1 percent of voters are Samaritan. That impressed Yusef Abu Al-Hasan Jacob Cohen, the highest priest of the Samaritans. "Arafat is the first person to ever dedicate a special seat in his parliament for us," says Mr. Cohen, dressed in his regal, embroidered robe. He thinks Mr. Arafat's goodwill should come as no surprise. "We are part of the Palestinian people. We have lived in Nablus for a long time. …

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