Hebron is an ancient city located nineteen miles south of Jerusalem where some 3700 years ago, Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23:14-20) to bury his wife, Sarah. Today, Hebron is a city with 150,000 Palestinians and 500 Israelis locked in mortal combat over their right to live on the land. The 20th century imposed a heavy burden on contemporary reality.
On August 24, 1929 a massacre of the Jewish residents of Hebron killed sixty-nine, wounding another sixty and causing the British to expel those remaining. In 1967, Hebron was captured by the Israeli army in the Six-Day War. In 1968 Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of religious Jews rented a hotel in Hebron then announced their intention to stay. The Israeli government grudgingly permitted a move to a military base overlooking Hebron, (that became the settlement of Kiryat Arba). This marked the return of a Jewish presence that expanded into settlements in the Old City. On February 25, 1994 Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli extremist entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs where Muslims were praying and opened fire with an automatic weapon killing twenty-nine and wounding another hundred and fifty. As a result of the continuing violence, in 1997, the governments of Israel and Palestine enacted the Hebron Protocol, dividing the city into two security areas, H1, the Palestinian district and H2, the Old City of Hebron. Palestinian police were given authority over H1 and Israel the H2 area with overlapping Palestinian responsibility for the Holy sites.
I walked into the City six years ago as a member of a Compassionate Listening delegation and spent twenty-four hours having my senses torn apart. I viewed an exhibition of photographs of Palestinian martyrs sponsored by the Palestinian Red Crescent, visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs, had dinner in the home of a Palestinian human rights activist and stayed the night. I said Kaddish, (the Jewish prayer for the dead), at the gravesite of Moshe Goldschmidt, a victim of the 1929 massacre and grandfather of Yaacov Schneid, a member of our interfaith group who was afraid to accompany us to Hebron with his Israeli passport. Hebron’s painful past oozes through the cracks of its stones into the pores of its citizens and infects many with a terminal mixture of hate and victim-hood. You will view the conflict today though the eyes of Palestinian and Israeli residents.
You will hear the voices of the governments and from internationals standing in harms way. You will even hear a whisper of hope.
I spoke to David Wilder, Spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Hebron.
“Starting with the good side there are a tremendous number of (Jewish) groups visiting Hebron. The Israeli government gives virtually no support to Hebron.
"There is a tremendous influx of foreigners, left wing organizations, the International Solidarity Movement, Breaking the Silence, the Christian Peacemaker Team, bringing diplomats to point out the horrors of the occupation.
"What all these groups do is incite the Arab population against us. Their goal, following the success of the expulsion from Gush Katif, (the former Jewish settlements in Gaza), is to try to get the Jews out of Hebron.”
"First of all, Jewish people around the world have to understand that the Jewish people have to live here. Second issue, our neighbors have to accept the legitimacy of Jews in Hebron and accept the State of Israel. We’re staying here!"
"The day will come when Hebron will be a large thriving Jewish city.” I asked about relations with Palestinians and peace. “If an Arab doesn’t like living in Israel he can live in other places. If they want to they can leave. Jews and Arabs lived together in Hebron for hundreds and hundreds of years. In the early 1900’s Jews and Arabs lived as neighbors. Today, I don’t see it! There’s no reason why our enemies shouldn’t think they can win. Lebanon, Gush Katif. We continue to give the land. Why should they stop? The Arab mentality tremendously respects strength and despises weakness, not only physical strength but persistence.
When Israel goes back to the 1948 mentality that got off the boat and settled the land…” For more info go to www.hebron.com
Janet Benzie is a Christian Peacemaker Team, CPT volunteer, in Hebron. “One of the main things we do is school patrol, escorting (Palestinian) children to school making sure they are safe. Much of Shuhada Street is now blocked off to Palestinians. Today many of the children were stopped to get their bags checked.
If there are international observers the soldiers often moderate their behavior.
You tend to think there’s no prospect for peace. Israeli peace activists come here to show solidarity. When I see Palestinians and Israelis together then I believe.” I asked if she has had any personal difficulties with the Israelis. “Once walking on Shuhada Street kids kicked and threw stones at me. The parents watched the children throwing stones. An Israeli said to me a few days ago, the settlers are willing to let the children do this because they can’t be arrested.” For more info go to www.cpt.org
I spoke with Shani Horowitz, a Jewish resident of Hebron. “I’m a mother of ten bringing up my children here in Hebron. What people have to realize, they do very normal things. Go to school, play basketball, they walk around, they feel very secure. Here you feel like you’re representing the Jewish people. I’ve been in Hebron twenty-five years. Hevron is a Jewish city. I feel the Arabs have territories all over the world. We have this tiny place. Part of their religion is the Jihad, the Holy War. I don’t think I can count on them. Just like in 1929. Do I start up with an Arab walking down the street? Heaven forbid! My kids are not involved in any violence. What would make it better? There’s only one place for us to be. One Promised Land, a Jewish country, a Jewish state.”
Zleeka Muhtaseb is a Palestinian born in the Old City of Hebron. “I run a very small kindergarten for twenty-five children in the Old City. I provide psychological support for the children because they suffer a lot and are under a lot of stress. The Jewish Purim, the settler children celebrated their own way with hundreds of soldiers protecting them with closures all around the West Bank. The (Palestinian) children ask why don’t we have the freedom to walk on this street or that street? Why can’t we go to school? Sometimes we can’t answer. It’s important that the children understand the conflict. The children get in direct contact with the settlers. We emphasize that the children have to protect themselves non-violently. We tell them to talk to the soldiers. Sometimes I talk to them when I see unequal treatment. They say; ‘This is our duty to protect the settlers.’ Some of them say they are here to protect both sides. I do not remember one time when the soldiers protected the Palestinians.”
I ask whether she has hope. “Of course! We can’t live without hope. I have a small group of street boys and am working with them to plant a garden and help them not to think in a violent way. Once children try to grow things hope will grow inside of them. There is still life! To grow in spite of traumas. I’m trying to spread this idea.” I asked about her contact with Israelis. “In the past I tried to talk to the settlers. Most of the time they spit at us. I spoke to a settler who was protesting the Palestinians living on Israeli land. He said: ‘Look at the Torah. God gave it to us!’ I asked about the source of the violence. “Actually, both sides attack each other. You can say objectively in most cases the settlers attack the Palestinians. This produces anger. I live on Shuhada Street. There is a big cage put on my balcony just to protect me from the stones. The street is completely closed for the Palestinians.”
I asked an Israeli military official about their mission and challenges in Hebron. He said; “The IDF’s (Israeli Defense Forces) job is first of all to protect the citizens of Israel and those living in Hebron. Just in January they arrested a terror cell involving twenty terrorists based in Hebron. In different attacks the terrorists had killed six people. You can’t even compare with the old level of terror. It’s much lower now because we have forces in the area now and can act to get people arrested before they act.” As for internationals; “First of all it’s an old city with lots of international interest. We work in close cooperation with the police.
We are there to provide security. In Hebron there are lots of NGO’s, (non-governmental institutions), and we let them operate as freely as possible.” I asked if things were getting better or worse. “As far as security is concerned, while terror attempts have not fallen off, the number of successful attacks has gone down. Between the Jewish and Palestinian population it’s not a normal situation like you see in other cities. It’s an uncomfortable situation and often causes friction between the two peoples. It will have to be solved eventually at the political level.” For more info go to www.idf.il
I spoke with Marwan Sultan, Director General of the Hebron Government, and asked how life is in Hebron. “Well, in fact we have two sides; one living in H2 where Israelis have full authority and it is under military presence and the settlers. More than 1500 shops have been closed and Palestinians are not allowed to move around. In H1 with the Palestinian Authority life is a little better. Due to Israel imposing a hard siege on the Palestinian territories, Palestinians face a hard economic situation. Poverty increased to more than 70% in the West Bank. The situation is totally miserable and no one within the available environment can do anything to overcome the poverty because it is Israel who dominates the life of Palestinians.” I asked if peace is possible in Hebron. “We can’t lose hope for peace. What is needed for peace is the recognition of Israelis of the rights of the occupied Palestinian people and their readiness to fulfill obligations toward peace. We would like to live with our children and their children in peace.”
B’Tselem is the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. I spoke will Musa Hashhash , their reporter in Hebron, a Palestinian and a life long resident. “The settlers are violent against the people primarily in the Old City. For the settlers nothing has changed. They still attack and abuse people. There have been hundreds of complaints. No, I don’t think things will change in the near future. People are suffering right now. Many people are concerned about what is happening in Hebron and the Abu-Aisha family.” The family made a video of an ugly confrontation with a settler that was distributed by B’Tselem to media sources around the world. “Many of the residents left the Old City for safer places. Shuhada Street is completely closed by military order. So business has been destroyed. Social Life has been destroyed.” For more info go to www.btselem.org
It is a sad story if it ends with the closure of Shuhada Street and an enmity between the two peoples that is palpable enough to feel in the air and real enough to become an endless record of provocations and vengence. After Abraham purchased the Cave and buried his wife Sarah, he remarried, grew old and died.
His two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, came together to mourn and to bury their father. Unless the Children of Abraham become strong enough to take the risk to come together once again, to learn how to speak to each other, live again as neighbors and truly seek peace, the Middle East and the whole world are destined to suffer the consequences of that lack of will. Hebron is on the front line with Palestinians and Israelis facing each other every day. We in America must be more than feckless cheerleaders. We must raise our voices loud and long enough to be the great world power we so often pretend to be. Call President Bush at 202-456-1111 and tell him to become a bridge builder and the saver of uncounted Muslim, Jewish, and Christian souls.