- Hebron is the biggest city in the Palestinian West Bank with a population of 200,000 Palestinians and around 1,000 Israeli settlers.
- Many call the city a microcosm of the Israel-Palestine conflict due to its importance to both Jews and Muslims, the many incidents that have occurred there, and the fact that the city is split into a Jewish section and a Palestinian section.
- I recently visited Hebron on a “dual narrative” tour. Half the tour was guided by an Israeli Jew and the other half was guided by a Palestinian from Hebron. Each told their side of the conflict in Hebron. It was an enlightening and tense experience.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you want to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict – its array of conflicting narratives and the harsh realities that make peace a distant possibility – go to Hebron.
The ancient city of Hebron has been at the center of the conflict since the early 1900s. Like Jerusalem, it is a site considered holy and immeasurably important to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Events that occurred there are, in many ways, where the differing narratives start and where much of the persisting animosity simmers and boils over.
The city is so contentious that even after the 1993 Oslo Accords brought an end to the First Intifada – a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza – a separate negotiation process was required to deal with Hebron.
On a recent trip to Israel – my first – I decided that I had to see Hebron to better understand the reality of the country, beyond the cheerful beaches of Tel Aviv.
I decided to take a tour led byEliyahu McLean, an Orthodox Jew who moved from the US to Israel 20 years ago. The founder of Jerusalem Peacemakers, McLean runs what he calls a “dual narrative” tour of Hebron.
Like the city, the tour is divided: For half the time, McLean leads participants through the Jewish part of Hebron to tell the Israeli narrative; for the other half, a Palestinian guide takes participants through the Palestinian section of Hebron to talk about his and his fellow Palestinians’ experience in Hebron.
As McLean joked, the tour might as well be called Israel-Palestine 101. Here’s what it was like:
Hebron is located 20 miles south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. With a population of 200,000+ Palestinians and around 1,000 Israeli settlers, Hebron is the biggest city in the Palestinian territory. Its name in both Hebrew (Hevron) and Arabic (Al-Khalil) translates to “friend.”
The city is religiously significant to Jews, Christians, and Arabs because it is considered the burial site of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Jews and Arabs lived together in Hebron in the early 1900s, but Arab-led riots in 1929 left approximately 67 Jews dead and drove the remainder out of the city.
Jordan controlled Hebron after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and lost it, along with the rest of the West Bank, to Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. The city has been under some kind of military occupation ever since. In 1968, the first Israeli settlers moved into the city and, in effect, started the settler movement, where Israelis establish communities on lands within the Palestinian territories.
The city is so contentious that it required a second peace agreement between Israel and Palestine in the mid-1990s. Ever since the 1997 Hebron Agreement, the city has been divided into two sectors: H1 and H2.
H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and is where the vast majority of Palestinians live. H2 is under Israeli military control and is where about 30,000 Palestinians and about 1,000 Israeli settlers live.
When tensions start to rise, as happened earlier this year when the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, they often boil over in Hebron first.
The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers near Hebron became the spark that started the Gaza-Israel conflict in 2014.
On the day I visited with McLean, Hebron was calm. McLean’s “dual narrative” tours of Hebron aim to help visitors understand both sides of the conflict. “Sometimes I like to call our tour a competing victimology tour: Who can compete for your sympathies as the greater victim,” McLean said at the outset of the tour.
After our short introduction with McLean, we met Mohammed Al-Mohtaseb, a 27-year-old Palestinian, who would be our other tour guide. We got our first taste of Hebron life when we went through this military checkpoint so that we could visit the Ibrahimi Mosque.
The Ibrahimi Mosque, as it is known to Muslims, or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, as it is known to Jews, is said to be the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.
The 2,000-year-old building was built by King Herod the Great, and is considered to be the oldest continuously used prayer structure in the world. It has passed hands from Jews to Christians to Muslims throughout that time. The building holds a series of cenotaphs, or commemorative tombs, for the biblical figures, though some believe they are actually buried beneath the building.
After the Six-Day War, the mosque came under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years. Jews entered the structure for the first time in 700 years. The ceiling of the mosque contains gorgeous Ottoman, Mamluk, and even Crusader-period architecture.
There have been numerous attacks at or near the Ibrahimi Mosque since 1967, many targeting Jews. But the worst attack happened in February 1994, when an Israeli-American settler opened fire on the mosque, killing 29 Palestinians and injuring 125 others. The man was beaten to death by survivors in the mosque.
While the attack was condemned by the Israeli government, their response still looms large in the minds of Palestinians, according to Al-Mohtaseb. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) closed the mosque for nine months, imposed a months-long curfew on Palestinian residents, closed the main business street in Hebron to Palestinians, and built up military checkpoints. The mosque was then divided into a Muslim side and a Jewish side.
“When a curfew gets called, it only applies to us Palestinians,” said Al-Mohtaseb, holding up his Palestinian ID card. “You all can visit an empty town if you like. If you want to describe Hebron in a few words: Visitors have more rights than residents.”
After visiting the mosque, we headed to Haram Street in the Old City of Hebron, a dense warren of alleyways. The area is considered part of Israeli-controlled H2, but operates as a buffer zone. The “no-man’s land” arrangement creates some problems, according to Al-Mohtaseb. Neither Israeli military nor Palestinian police operate there, making it difficult for residents to report crimes or disturbances.
Following the 1994 massacre and the official splitting of the city in 1997, the military shut more than 500 shops in the Old City. In the intervening years, an additional 1,100 shops closed due to restrictions on access for both customers and suppliers. The neighbourhood has started to come back in recent years due to the efforts of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, which has helped open and renovate more than 1,000 homes and 120 shops.
Military checkpoints manned by soldiers tower over the area. Israeli settlers live in apartments above the Palestinian shops of the Old City. The two are separated by barbed wire and metal netting. “I don’t think you can actually equate the situation in Hebron to any other city in the world,” Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the United States, told The Atlantic last year. “The overall situation, over years and years, is unbearable.”
Source: The Atlantic
Jamal Maraqa and his family have owned a shop in the Old City for generations, but saw it closed by soldiers. He returned a few years ago, but said he deals with incitement from the settlers regularly. “We are determined to stay and we won’t give up. This is our homeland,” he said.
Israeli settlers frequently throw their trash onto the Palestinians below — everything from garbage to urine and sewage, Maraqa said. The shop-owners put up the metal netting to block the trash. “It all happens in front of the soldiers’ eyes. We ask them to help us … but they ignore us,” Maraqa said, adding that the last trash-throwing happened three weeks ago.
One of the most difficult parts of living in Hebron, according to Al-Mohtaseb, is the constant dealings with soldiers. Palestinians in Hebron are subject to both Israeli military law and Palestinian civil law. But military law says that if a complaint is filed against a Palestinian person, they are treated as guilty until proven innocent, according to Al-Mohtaseb, who has been arrested once and detained countless times. Most of the time, the complaints are filed by Israeli settlers.
Source: 972 Magazine
“Hebron is the microcosm of the occupation. Everything that happens under occupation — settlements, curfews, raids, walls, checkpoints, and the rest — exists here,” Hisham Sharabati, a Hebron resident whose family has lived in the city for generations, told The Jerusalem Post last year. Despite the ever-present tension, everyone I met in H1 was exceedingly friendly.
The Jerusalem Post
Outside the Old City, Hebron is still bustling. The city’s economy makes up more than 30% of the West Bank’s GDP, much of which comes from limestone quarries and local agricultural products.
Source: Youth Against Settlements
In the city center, I spoke with a man named Ashraf, who said the closing of Shuhada Street, where he owned a clothing shop, nearly ruined him. “It’s not easy to make money now. If people have a good life, there are less problems. But the government doesn’t care about helping and people get hopeless,” he said. “When they get hopeless, they do bad things.”
Al-Mohtaseb said that Hebronites believe Israelis have three main goals for Hebron: settle in the city center; build up a route between that settlement and another settlement called Kiryat Arba; and convert the Palestinian homes in-between to Israeli homes.
On the day I visited in July, the areas of the city that abutted Israeli settlers’ homes felt wracked with tension. In the rest of the city, Hebronites seemed to be going about their days. But as Al-Mohtaseb said, at any point Israeli soldiers could appear to check IDs or conduct an operation. That threat always looms for most Palestinians.
We met up with McLean to get the Israeli perspective. Al-Mohtaseb had told us that Palestinians believe Israel took 65% of the Ibrahimi Mosque, primarily because they count the garden and terrace outside. But devout Jews, McLean said, feel they only received a sliver of the actual temple.
The garden outside (pictured above), McLean said, was created to commemorate how Jews were not allowed to pray at the temple past the seventh step of the outside staircase. For hundreds of years, if Jews went past that step, they were violently beaten.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the Cave of the Patriarchs is the cave Abraham purchased to bury his wife Sarah. The purchase is seen as the first land-holding in Israel and therefore the first instance of nation-building of Israel. For many Israelis, both religious and secular, the Torah story forms the core of their connection to the land.
Source: Times of Israel
After the 1994 massacre, the mosque/temple was divided into a Jewish and a Muslim side. The cenotaph of Abraham is visible to both sides through a bullet-proof glass. McLean visited the mosque for the first time three weeks before the massacre. At the time, Jews and Muslims often prayed together.
At the Cave of the Patriarchs, McLean gave us the alternate point of view of the aftermath of the 1994 massacre. He agreed that the months-long curfew was “oppressive” in the short term, but said the restrictions “calmed the waters” in Hebron.
At the time, there had been near constant protests and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Twenty Palestinians were killed and another 120 injured by Israel Defence Force (IDF) soldiers in the weeks following.
“I’m not saying it was fair, but there was a valid security rationale for imposing that,” McLean said.
In keeping with Jewish tradition, the inside of the Jewish side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs is minimal. Rather than the sumptuous carpets you’d find in the mosque, it is filled with shelves of religious books and prayer areas.
After leaving the temple, we headed out into H2, the Israeli-controlled part of the city. Jews began settling in the city as early as 1968, but the community only has about 1,000 people and takes up a handful of buildings — about 3% of the city. The area, which is mostly off-limits to Palestinians who don’t live there, looks like a ghost-town.
McLean pointed out two apartment buildings along the road that were recently occupied by settlers. They call them the “House of Leah” and “House of Rachel.” According to McLean, the complexes were “not grabbed or stolen, but purchased in valid real estate transactions.” The Civil Administration, which authorizes West Bank property purchases, has yet to validate the transaction.
Source: The Times of Israel
Down the road, we met an IDF soldier — an American named Asher who immigrated to Israel two years ago. Asher said that his role and the job of his unit is to “keep the peace” between Jews and Palestinians in the area, since both use the street. “We’re here to protect, but we’re not here to take sides,” he said.
Shuhada Street and the surrounding area was once the commercial heart of Hebron, home to a wholesale market as well as many shops. But following the 1994 massacre and numerous terror attacks in Hebron during the Second Intifada in the 2000s, the IDF closed the street to Palestinians. The IDF also closed off access to H1 and closed the shops.
Local Palestinian activists refer to the area as “Apartheid Street” in reference to the differing rules imposed on Palestinians and Israelis. The name also alludes to what Palestinians see as the heavy-handed administration of the IDF.
Source: Youth Against Settlements
In a shooting at the wholesale market in 2002, a rabbi named Shlomo Yitzak Shapira was killed. “With those incidents one after another, we have no way to distinguish between a legitimate shopkeeper and a gunman or a suicide bomber,” McLean said of the IDF’s rationale.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The biggest settlement in Hebron is called Avraham Avinu. Located in the heart of the Old City, many of the buildings look out on the Palestinian market. McLean said he is sceptical settlers throw trash as frequently as the Palestinian shopkeepers claim, suggesting the owners leave the trash there for tourists. Meanwhile, he said that settlers are terrified of terror attacks. After a teenage girl was stabbed in her bed in Kiryat Arba in 2016, settlers have put iron bars on their windows.
Jews who migrated from Spain lived in Hebron for hundreds of years in the Avraham Avinu quarter, alongside Arab residents, McLean said. The central structure for Jews was the Avraham Avinu Synagogue, which was built in 1540. Jews fled the city in 1929 after a massacre in which 67 people were killed by Arabs.
Israeli settlers point to the synagogue as proof that there was a Jewish presence in Hebron for centuries. The synagogue was abandoned after the massacre and was turned into a goat shed during Jordanian rule. In the 1970s, Noam Arnon, an Israeli, rebuilt it. The synagogue still has the original centuries-old Torah scrolls, thanks to a Jewish boy who rescued them on the eve of the 1929 massacre.
“Most of the world will say the Jews of Hebron are colonial Zionist settler occupiers … but we see ourselves as linked spiritually and literally to the same community that has always lived here,” McLean said of the settlers’ rationale.
“Where is more indigenous for a Jewish person in the world? Is it Brooklyn or Yemen or Morocco or Iraq, or any place that Jews lived? They would say this is the spot. The first Jewish city in the world.”
Source: The Jerusalem Post
There was no street life in H2. It was eerily silent. The IDF has called the area “tzir sterili,” or sterile roads.
Source: The New York Times
The sign attached to the left balcony in this image reads, “Caution: This was taken by Israel. You are entering Apartheid.” Though Palestinians live in these buildings, they are not allowed to walk on this street and must instead climb over roofs to reach their homes. The fencing around the balconies was constructed to protect residents from settlers throwing stones.
There are around 2,000 IDF soldiers in Hebron, most of whom are on the streets of H2. At times, the area feels like a military camp with jeeps and platoons constantly passing by. We were stopped several times so McLean could explain that he was a tour guide.
Most of the surrounding suburbs of Hebron are dominated by Palestinians. But one of the biggest suburbs is the Kiryat Arba settlement, which houses nearly 8,000 Israeli settlers. The settlers are known for being a mix of immigrants seeking cheap housing and right-wing extremists.
Source: The Washington Post
In 1979, a settler named Miriam Levinger and several followers took over this building, which they named Beit Hadassah. Levinger’s husband, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, started the settler movement in 1968 when he and his followers occupied a Hebron hotel. The Israeli army moved them to Kiryat Arba, where they settled permanently. Settlers still live in Beit Hadassah today.
In the basement of Beit Hadassah is the Hebron History Museum, which commemorates the Jewish presence in Hebron throughout history. An entire room is dedicated to the 1929 Massacre, which historian Hillel Cohen has called “year zero of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” One part of the history not shown, McLean pointed out, is that local Arab families saved 435 Jews in the city by hiding them during the riots.
Next we headed towards Tel Rumeida, a hillside neighbourhood that forms the oldest site in Hebron. The IDF put up this gate after several stabbing attacks on soldiers.
Both Israeli settlers and Palestinians live in Tel Rumeida. Many of the Palestinian families that live in the neighbourhood make a living by working the land for agriculture. But soldiers are never far away. I took this photo after a soldier shooed me away from photographing the checkpoint, which is just out of the frame.
McLean said that Israelis view the soldiers in Hebron not as an occupying force, but as heroic and necessary protectors on the “front lines” of the conflict.
But incidents like a March 2016 shooting, in which a 19-year-old soldier named Elor Azaria shot an immobile Palestinian assailant, reinforce the “occupier” narrative. Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, the Palestinian man, had stabbed an IDF soldier and was wounded on the ground when Azaria shot him in the head.
Azaria’s act sparked a national debate in Israel. He was released in May and cheered by his community as a hero.
Source: The Independent
Many of the settlers in Tel Rumeida live in trailer homes. The last permanent settler building built in Hebron was in 2002, after Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan was killed in the area. In McLean’s telling, a Palestinian family across the street flew a Palestinian flag the day after the killing as a slight.
Even something as simple as a thousand-year-old olive grove, like this one in Tel Rumeida, is a source of conflict. During the olive harvest, Israeli settlers have been known to attack Palestinian farmers because the settlers have claimed the land as their own. “What’s the irony here?” McLean said of the violence. “The olive and the olive branch is a symbol of peace and an end to conflict.” McLean’s said he wishes the groups would harvest together and sell the oil at double the price as “Hebron Peace Oil.”
For an American visiting Israel for a few weeks, and Hebron for a single day, I can’t draw many conclusions about the conflict – I haven’t lived through terror attacks or military occupation, so I can’t fully understand either side’s perspective.
But I will say that the Palestinians I met and the stories I read and heard about the hardships they live through felt more situated in the present than the stories from McLean or the settlers. The settler point-of-view always seemed to start in biblical times or in 1929, while the Palestinians seemed to be primarily concerned with the difficulty of their day-to-day lives.
Overall, the situation in the city struck me as untenable. Both the settlers and the Palestinians saw their existence in the city as an act of resistance, and the presence of the other as an affront.
As the United Nations has noted, the presence of Israeli settlers in Palestine is making peace “unattainable.” Any future deal will likely necessitate Hebron’s settlers leaving the city, and their refusal to do so could make such a deal impossible.
As we ended the tour, McLean asked if we were confused.
“Yes? That’s good. That means you are starting to understand the conflict,” he said.
Source: 972 Magazine
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