Middle East Chronicles: Hebron

Hebron is mentioned in the Bible as the home of Abraham, and the burial place of him and several generations of his family. In King David’s time, Hebron was briefly the capital of the Israelite state, before the capital moved to Jerusalem and today, Hebron is holy to both Muslims and Jews due to its association with Abraham.

The Jewish population of Hebron was evacuated after a killing of nearly 70 of them in 1929. Then, after the 1967 war, a few Jewish settlers went to visit Hebron for Passover, then decided to “renew life” in what used to be the Jewish quarter of Hebron until 1929. Today, about 500 Jews live in part of the old city of Hebron under continual protection by the Israeli Defence Forces with a ratio of four Israeli soldiers for each Israeli settler. The remaining 166,000 residents of the surrounding city are Palestinians. At this regard, I recommend watching “This is my land, Hebron”which sheds light on the hard coexistence of the two religious communities in this Holy place.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the main religious site in the city. The cave, where the Patriarchs and their wives are buried is deep underground, and now people pray in a building on top of it, which was built by King Herod about 2000 years ago. Visitors are welcome to visit both the Muslim and Jewish sides of the cave when they are not being used for prayer schedules. The Muslim side provides cloaks for women to cover up when visiting.

The Muslim side of the Cave contains the only known entrance to the Cave below (it is locked by a marble door). And as well, the tomb-markers of Issac, and Rebekah, with the tomb-markers of Abraham and Sarah lying on the border of both the Muslim and Jewish section of the cave so both have access to Abraham and Sarah’s tombs from each side.

Most of the time, half of the building is used for Muslim and half for Jewish prayer. On a few predetermined days each year, each religion gets to use the entire building. For the Jews, in addition to the normal holidays, one of these days is “Shabbat Chayei Sarah” each fall, on which thousands of people from all of Israel visit Hebron to commemorate Abraham’s purchase of the Cave from its previous Hittite owners. For the Muslims it is on Friday’s during Ramadan and as well during the Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha holiday which Islam commemorates as the day Abraham was willing to sacrafice his son.

Regardless of the sacrality of the place, Hebron was the place where the only “accident” during our trip occured. While we sort of got lost after visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we ended up in a kind of maze which was an extension of the souq. At a certain moment Olga, Mustafa and myself start hearing some noise, like a sort of chanting, from a group of kids walking behind us. At first, I thought they were coming closer to ask for some money, as it had happened before while we were visiting the famous protection nets. While the chants got louder I noticed that their intention was completely different. Stones started being thrown at us, small at first but when I turned my head we had a dozen kids throwing bricks. At first we felt incredulity. Within my dumb international relations student’s rationality I thought “Why was that?” We were an Italian, a Greek and a Syrian and clearly with a pro-Palestine view on the conflict. We started to run and Mustafa stopped and shouted at them in Arabic “We are Arabs, we are Arabs”.

This calmed them down but I admit we had some very bad 30 seconds. Later on I realized that these kids have been witnessing pure hatred for all their lives. They’ve been witnessing the rape of their land by a foreign colonizing army. They have seen their family’s shops qnd dwells being evacuated from one day to the other against the blind eyes of the international community. Whatever different, more Western or non-Arab we could look at that moment,  it us made look like intruders to them. It’s not their fault. Hatred breeds hatred and this is just a product of this relationship.

Under the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine passed by the UN in 1947, Hebron was envisaged to become part of an Arab state. While the Jewish leaders accepted the partition plan, the Arab leadership (the Arab Higher Committee in Palestine and the Arab League) rejected it, opposing any partition. Following the Six-Day War, Israel occupied Hebron. In 1997, in accordance with the Hebron Agreement, Israel withdrew from 80% of Hebron which was handed over to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian police would assume responsibilities in Area H1 and Israel would retain control in Area H2.

An international unarmed observer force—the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was subsequently established to help the normalization of the situation and to maintain a buffer between the Palestinian Arab population of the city and the Jews residing in their enclave in the old city.

Hebron was the one city excluded from the interim agreement of September 1995 to restore rule over all Palestinian West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority. Since The Oslo Agreement, violent episodes have been recurrent in the city. The Cave of the Patriarchs massacre took place on February 25, 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli physician and resident of Kiryat Arba, opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29, and wounding 125 before the survivors overcame and killed him. Standing orders for Israeli soldiers on duty in Hebron disallowed them from firing on fellow Jews, even if they were shooting Arabs.

This event was condemned by the Israeli Government, and the extreme right-wing Kach party was banned as a result. The Israeli government also tightened restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in H2, closed their vegetable and meat markets, and banned Palestinian cars on Shuhada Street.

In the 1980s Hebron became the center of the Kach movement, a designated terrorist organization, whose first operations started there, and provided a model for similar behaviour in other settlements. Hebron is one of the three West Bank towns from where the majority of suicide bombers originate.

Within his holiness, this is a city of pain and blood. The type of blood that stays within the the veins of many generations.


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