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.
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
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: