Children of Abraham

The ancient and holy city of Hebron is rarely out of the news; and the news is never good. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”.

In May 2016, we visited Hebron, a fault line of faiths and a front line of an old war still being waged for possession of the Holy Land. It is a hot spot, a flash-point, where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity, and bad things happen. It is the seemingly intractable conflict in the raw, a microcosm of the Occupation, and there is no denying the brutality of the place. Most western journalists and commentators give their readers an impression that Israel absolutely dominates this Palestinian city of some 200,000 souls. In reality, the area under military control, immediately surrounding the ancient Ibrahimi mosque, holy to two faiths, is very small. But in this pressure cooker of a ghetto reside some 700 settlers and thirty thousand Palestinians, segregated from each other by walls and wire, fear and loathing – and by two soldiers to every settler.

On our return, the e-magazine Muftah published the following article.

Children of Abraham and the Battle for Hebron

You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody – you were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain and my father’s hand was trembling with the beauty of the word.
Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac

I recently returned from Hebron in the occupied West Bank. The city is a fault line of faiths and a front line in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a “hot spot,” a flash-point, a place where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity. Hebron has been a key focus of the tension and violence that has characterized the troubled relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. Since October 2015, over 200 Palestinians and thirty Israelis have been killed across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel, in the latest flare-up in the decades-long conflict.

In March this year, an Israeli soldier was filmed shooting and killing a wounded twenty-one-year-old Palestinian, following a stabbing attack on Israeli soldiers. The soldier, just nineteen years of age, is now facing trial, amidst massive outcry on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.. In June, not long after we left Israel, a young Palestinian murdered a thirteen-year-old Israeli girl as she slept in nearby Kiryat Arba. Hours later, a Palestinian woman was shot dead by Israeli soldiers outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque. Later that afternoon, Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli car on a road just south of Hebron, killing a father and wounding his family. Local Palestinians gave emergency first aid to the victims and shielded the children from any further attack.

A Holy Land

Hebron has long been sacred to Muslims and Jews as the last resting place of the prophets Abraham and Isaac – the founding father of Judaism, and the son he had resolved to sacrifice until God ordered him to stay his hand. In the first century BC, Herod the Great, famed builder and bad boy, raised a mighty mausoleum above the cave where Abraham was laid to rest. Abraham’s wife Rachel, and his son, Isaac, Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and Isaac’s sons Joseph and Jacob – whose wrestled with an Angel to represent man’s struggle with God –  and Jacob’s wife Leah are also buried there.

As time went by, Christians and then Muslims revered Hebron as a holy place. Abraham was the founding father of both religions and his sons and grandsons, buried in the cave, are considered prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In time, a mosque was established on Herod’s edifice, and for a short while, during the hundred years of the Crusader kingdom, a basilica too.

In the thirteenth century, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars expelled the Christians from Hebron. A small community of Jews continued to reside in the town of Hebron, however. In 1929, amidst rising religious and nationalist tension in the British Mandate of Palestine, some seventy Jewish men, women, and children were killed by Palestinians who had been incited to violence by rumours that Jews planned to overrun the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. Many local Palestinians also helped save Jewish neighbors from the bloodshed. Following the riots, Hebron’s Jewish community largely ceased to exist, until the an-Naksa, or ‘setback’, of 1967, when Israeli military forces occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

In the early days of the occupation, Israeli authorities did not encourage Jews to return to Hebron. One of the first illegal Israeli settlements was established outside Hebron in what is now Kiryat Arba, and thereafter, a small settlement was built around the Mosque of Ibrahim. Beginning in 1979, some Jewish settlers moved from Kiryat Arba to the former Jewish neighborhood near the Abraham Avinu Synagogue which had been destroyed in 1929. Other Jewish enclaves were established with the Israeli army’s support and more homes were subsequently purchased or forcibly taken over from their Palestinian owners.

With the establishment of a Jewish presence in and around Hebron, the religious right-wing demanded that Jews be permitted to pray at the tombs of the patriarchs, and the 700 years old restriction on Jews praying here was lifted. Muslims and Jews were now obliged to share the holy place, although it was formally administered by the Muslim Waqf. Thus, even prayer became a focus of conflict and tension, and sometimes, violence, particularly during each faith’s holy days.

Tensions and Divisions

Since 1979, tensions have continued to increase between the small community of Israeli settlers living in Hebron (several hundred) and the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose lives have been turned upside down by their presence. These tensions reach boiling point in February 1994, when US-born Israeli doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims worshippers during the dawn prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque. He killed twenty-nine people and wounded another 125 before he was overcome and killed by survivors. Hundreds more Palestinians were killed or injured in the Israeli military’s response to the ensuing violence.

Goldstein had been inspired by a boyhood mentor, the ultranationalist New York Rabbi Meir Kahane, and had belonged Kahane’s militant Jewish Defence League, founded ostensibly to protect Jews from antisemitism, but implicated in numerous acts of violence in the USA  and elsewhere. On emigrating to Israel, he joined Kahane’s right-wing Kach Party.

The Israeli government condemned the massacre and responded by arresting Kahane’s followers, and criminalizing Kach and affiliated organizations as terrorists, forbidding certain settlers from entering Palestinian towns, and demanding that those settlers turn in their army-issued weapons. It rejected a demand by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that all settlers in the occupied territories be disarmed and that an international force be created to protect Palestinians.

UN observers came to keep the peace, but, after Israeli and Palestinian authorities could not reach agreement on resolving the situation, they departed. The Hebron Protocol was signed in January 1997 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat under the supervision of US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Under its terms, Hebron was divided into in two. H1, 80% of the city, and home to over 120,000 Palestinians, was placed under the Palestinian Authority’s control. H2, which was home to nearly 40,000, was placed under the exclusive control of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in order to protect some 600 Israeli Jewish settlers who lived in the area. 

Jewish Israelis were barred from entering HI, whilst Palestinians found it nearly impossible to Access H2 unless they lived there. Palestinian residents of H2 experienced forcible displacement, restrictions on their movement, the closure of their businesses, IDF checkpoints and searches, and verbal and physical harassment by settlers protected by the IDF. 

In a surreal, sad parody, the mosque too was divided, with a separate mosque and synagogue. The IDF controls access, closing it to Muslims on Jewish holy days and to Jews on Muslim holy days. There are frequent bans on the call to prayer on the grounds that it disturbs the settlers, and likewise on exuberant 

Dual Narrative

We travelled to Hebron on a “dual narrative tour”. It was run by Abraham Tours, which operates out of the Abraham Hostel at Davidka Square in Jerusalem, and caters for independent and mainly young travelers on limited budgets. One half of the tour was conducted by a Palestinian guide and the other by a Jewish guide. They walked us though the streets surrounding the Mosque of Ibrahim, and gave us the opportunity to meet and talk with several members of each of the communities.

We visited the Muslim side of the mosque, which retained the wide prayer hall, the empty catafalques of Isaac and Rebecca, the qibla and minbar, and the beautiful dome; and the larger Jewish side, which was, once upon a time, the open courtyard leading to the mosque. Abraham and Sarah occupy the neutral ground between the two halves.

The area around the divided holy place is a ghost town. On one flank, a deserted street is patrolled by young Israeli soldiers in full battle gear, leading to the settler neighborhood. On the other side, past checkpoints and security screening, is Shuhada  (martyrs) Street, an impoverished souq with more shops locked up than open, a small number of Palestinian storeowners, and a bevy of children endeavoring to sell us souvenirs. Above the few shops that are still open, there is a wire mesh to catch rocks, garbage, and various unmentionables thrown at Palestinians from Israeli settler families who have literally occupied the higher ground, abutting and overlooking the souq.

Scapegoating the Other

The Palestinians we met told us that Jewish settlers have been trying to drive them out of H2, to claim it for themselves, and that they will resort to all manner of harassment to do so, including throwing stones, and assaulting Palestinian children on their way home from school. Indeed, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently confirmed that movement restrictions, along with on-gong settler violence, reduced income, and restricted access to services and resources, has led to a reduction in the area’s Palestinian population. 

It is a desperate, hard life for all the Palestinians who live there. They cling on, refusing to leave or sell their ancestral homes. Offers, some very large, have been made in the past, but people will not trade their birthright, even when they are faced with physical threats to their lives. One Palestinian whose home we visited told me that his late wife was shot by Israeli soldiers, while his children were attacked by settlers. Nowadays, he and his few neighbors have no choice but to remain or flee without compensation as the Palestinian Authority has forbidden selling property to the settlers. And so they remain, in poverty and punishment.

The rebuilt and refurbished settler zone is a mix of run-down apartments. waste grounds, new community buildings and playgrounds, and a street of shops that once served the settlers’ needs but are now locked and neglected in a dusty, empty street. Here, the settlers too play the victim card, claiming that they area harassed, insulted, and killed. We met the administrator of the small Jewish museum and library who told us of how her grandfather was killed in 1929, and how her father was killed by an assailant in his own home. 

Today there are two Israeli soldiers for every Jewish settler. They are youngsters, barely out of high school. Heavily armed and nervous. With the power to end or destroy the lives of the Palestinians they occupy, many of them youths just like themselves. 

“You who build these altars then to sacrifice these children, you must not do it any more”.

If only it was that simple on the fault line of faith and nation.

Below is a selection of photographs taken during our visit.

Read more in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East : A Middle East Miscellany

You can read more about the pain and passion of Hebron here:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/hebron-tombs-of-the-patriarchs
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli%E2%80%93Palestinian_conflict_in_Hebron

Author’s Note: 
Whenever I pen commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that folllowed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in TheEthnic Cleansing of Palestine.   
The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Pasionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
So what happens next?
I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamatous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
October 8th 2017
For more posts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East, visit:
https://m.facebook.com/HowlingInfinite/
https://m.facebook.com/hf1983/

See also, my collection of posts about Jerusalem, and A Middle East Micellany

 

Hebron May 2016

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Hebron May 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

 

Castles Made of Sand

A recent article in Newsweek noted:

“More than three-quarters of Palestinians feel their government is corrupt. Asked to name the biggest problem in society, a majority of respondents choose internal ones: poverty, unemployment, corruption and the political schism between Hamas and Fatah. Just 27 percent say the occupation is their largest concern, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the top pollster in the territories. The official unemployment rate in the West Bank is 16 percent, and roughly one in five families lives in poverty. (The actual figures are thought to be higher). Yet the streets of Ramallah are lined with billboards advertising million-shekel apartments. A tenuous middle class has loaded up on consumer debt, which soared from $1.3 billion in 2012 to $2.2 billion just three years later. All of this has served to make Palestinians more risk-averse. The way a CEO of a major bank in Ramallah sees it: “You’re not going to join an intifada when you have to make mortgage payments.”

Meanwhile, the economies of Israel and Palestine are effectively integrated. Israel controls trade The Palestinian market us captive one for Israeli products, whilst Palestinian goods have limited acess to the Israeli market. Al Jazeera has recently published an informative piece this subject.

The following is based on our own observations and knowledge, and these are informed by what we have seen and read, and what we were told by Palestinians we talked to during our travels through the West Bank. We do not profess to be experts – we are neither academics nor professional commentators. And accordingly, we welcome objective comments and contributions that both support and question our observations.

Castles Made of Sand 

Whilst the attention of the international media and of NGOs is focused on Israeli settlements, there is a land rush going on in the cities of the West Bank.

A big surprise in our travels through the Occupied Territories, was the residential construction boom going on in cities fully governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). We had been aware of this prior to coming to Israel, but not of its scale. To our knowledge, mainstream media has hardly  covered this at all, and when it does, more often than not it is PR rather than critical analysis (see links below). Our guides, for reasons of their own, were reticent about discussing it.

We often hear that development is held back by the Occupation, that buildings without official approval are subject to demolition, and that there is no land available for Palestinians to build on. Likewise, we hear about how the water supply to the Est Bank is severely restricted. Israeli settlements enjoy an abundance whist Palestinian homes endure meagre rations. Indeed, our guides would stand beneath hills covered in building sites and repeatedly tell us all this.

Most certainly, building by Palestinians is severely restricted in Area C (60% of the West Bank, and 4% of its Arab population) which is under Israeli control, and Area B, under the joint control Israel and the Palestinian Authority (22% and 41% respectively).  And water is indeed problem insofar as the aquifers are located in Israel itself, and supply is hostage  to logistical and political exingenices, and also, to an antiquated Jordanian distribution infrastructure vulnerable to regular breakdowns and leaks.

But billions of expatriate dollars are being invested in medium and high density apartment blocks in area A, the 18% of the West Bank controlled by the PA (and 55% of Palestinian Arabs) in Ramallah, the de facto capital, and in Nablus, Hebron and Jenin. It is a common practice throughout the Middle East for expatriates to remit funds to build a house or houses for their families, or to add extra storeys to the old family home (unfinished upper storeys are a familiar feature of Arab towns in the Levant). But since its establishment, the PA has actively encouraged Palestinians who have “made it” overseas to invest in their nascent homeland by repatriating their stash and putting it into the burgeoning property market. The national accounts prepared by the Palestinian Monetary Authorty show that remittances from overseas have risen steadily in recent years. But do not detail where it is ultimately invested

Where does the land available for development come from? Local commentators suggest that families sell their land to developers. There are suggestions too that speculators take advantage of Shariah inheritance laws, whereby a parcel of land or an apartment block is divided up between sons, by targeting the weakest link – the most needy for quick cash, or more easily intimidated by strong arm tactics – and then persuading the other siblings to sell. The PA is regarded by many as notoriously corrupt, and it is not unlikely that government land and land held in trust is transferred into private hands through cronyism, kickbacks and connections. And what better home for trousered cash that cannot be transferred into offshore bank accounts than bricks and mortar?

Whatever the mechanism, the slopes of the hills surrounding the larger cities are adorned with hectare after hectare of high rises. Most are works in progress, and much of those that are completed appear to be unoccupied. And, on the subject of water supply, we observed that the new buildings were not topped by the roof water tanks that are ubiquitous in most Palestinian towns and villages. No water shortages here, it would seem.

We were informed that a small apartment can cost between $60 and $100,000 before fit-out. Add another 10-20% for fixtures and fittings. Most Palestinians cannot afford these modest apartments. Those that do are in paid employment, mainly working for the PA or for UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and the many NGOs that operate here. And they raise the finance through very un-islamic mortgages. Large billboards on highways offer financial advice and funds to affluent-looking young professionals.

imageimage

The irony is that most employed Palestinians depend upon the survival of the PA and indeed, on the continuation of the Occupation. UNWRA, the United Nations agency that caters exclusively for Palestinian refugees employs some 30,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian (only a few hundred are not), and as such, it is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (by comparison, the UN High Commission for Refugees employs only 5,000 to 6,000 people globally).

Should the PA collapse or be abolished, should UNWRA be dissolved, should a Palestinian state be established in the West Bank, the government, and those businesses and agencies that depend upon it for contracts and custom could become insolvent, whilst there is always the possibility that international funding could be reduced or withdrawn. In short, the housing bubble could burst, the property market collapse, and those photogenic young professionals in the billboards, and their families, could lose their jobs and their homes.

The health of the Palestinian economy is also an perennial risk factor. The economy had been improving in recent years, with unemployment in the West Bank falling and and private investment in construction growing. The two might have been working hand in hand, coinciding with commencement of the building boom. But during the past three years, economic indicators have gone backwards owing to the political and economic uncertainty, with falling rates of growth, high inflation, and continuing high rates of unemployment and poverty. Economic recession, therefore, could likewise impact on the property market.

These are worst-case scenarios. But there are other economic implications.

For example, this property boom is speculative rather than productive investment in a Palestinian economy that is heavily dependent – some would argue almost totally – on Israel and on international aid. Whilst aid donors and agencies bankroll roads and essential services like schools, power, water, and the like, some say the money should instead be invested in business startups and entrepreneurial enterprises, developing the fiscal and human capital so that Palestinians can provide for their own welfare. National self-esteem should come from being economically sustainable and not from being an indigent state.

Also, there is growing economic inequality between the haves and the have nots. Before the establishment of the PA, we were told, things were more evenly balanced. Most of the population were on a more or less equal footing. There was a sense of “we are all in it together”. Now there is a palpable sense of every man for himself.

Author’s Note

Reiterating the forward to this post, this is based on our own observations and knowledge, and these are informed by what we have seen and read – we are neither academics nor professional commentators. But, as we sincerely desire to acquire and to present as accurate a picture as possible, we welcome objective comments and contributions that both support and question our observations. Any such insights will be incorporated into the post.

Much of what I have written is covered in this illuminating report by the Jerusalem Centre for a Public Affairs published in November 2015 (the picture gallery is an eye-opener): Luxury alongside poverty in the Palestinian Authority

See also: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Bank

Photographic Postscript: every picture tells a story

Palestinian developer and billionaire Munib al Masri, so-called “Duke of Nablus” built himself a mansion atop a hill overlooking Nablus. That’s his personal mosque up there. Some locals say he could’ve built one for them in the city instead.

Al Misri's mosque

Al Masri’s mosque

New high-rise buildings look down on a billboard honouring a young shahi-d or martyr.

Those who can, invest. Those who cannot, become martyrs.

Those who can, invest. Those who cannot, become martyrs.

Afterword : The Duke of Nablus and his kin

Relatives Municipal al Masri include his cousin and fellow billionaire, Arab Bank and Paltel chairman Sabih al-Masri, and nephews, developer Bashar Masri, and Jordanian former prime minister Taher al-Masri. The Masris would appear to be the Palestininian Authority’s development choice, and also, Israel’s.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/dream-of-a-palestinian-tiger-boom-times-in-the-west-bank-a-759046.html
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31154138
http://cnsnews.com/news/article/us-govt-funding-313m-mortgages-palestinians-west-bank
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munib_al-Masri
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bashar_Masri