***Part 3 of a four-part travel diary, in which I explore Hebron first from a left-wing perspective and then from a right-wing perspective, inviting the reader to make his/her own mind up about the city.***
“People say there is apartheid in Hebron – and they’re right. But it’s against us, not them.” David Wilder points across the skyline, towards the hills. This is Hebron, the ancient Biblical city to which access is completely forbidden to Jews – except for a tiny sliver in the centre.
We are standing on the roof of an apartment block in Tel Rumeida, the heart of old Hebron. David is the official spokesman of the Jewish community in Hebron; he has kindly agreed to give me a tour of the city. Having seen Hebron through my ‘Left eye’ last week on a tour with Breaking the Silence, an NGO of former Israeli soldiers against the Occupation, I am keen to explore the city through my Right eye – to learn firsthand what Hebron looks like from the settlers’ point-of-view.
The vast majority of Hebron is designated ‘H-1’, placing it under Palestinian control. Jews can enter “only a few times a year” – on sightseeing tours, with a military escort. It would be too dangerous for them to enter alone. David points at an enormous complex nearby, a new Arab shopping centre: he wishes he could visit, but it is strictly off limits, for his own safety. It hasn’t always been like this.
“The Arabs can build, and we can’t,” he complains. “Even if an Arab wants to sell his house to a Jew, that’s a capital crime.” Prohibited from engaging in free trade with their neighbours, the tiny Jewish community in Hebron – some eighty families, in all – is crammed into four ‘settlements’. I put this term in quotation marks, because these sites bear no resemblance to the image the term conjures up. This one is just an apartment block with some ‘caravans‘ in the front yard; another is a small cluster of homes around a small courtyard.
David gestures towards the mountains. “They started to build in 1980 when they saw us coming.” West of the Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, these were all empty hills until recently, but now they are dotted with Arab houses. “They used to shoot at us from the hills,” he tells me, as we stand completely exposed on the rooftop. “Now the army’s back.” I can breathe easy.
This building is built on pillars, raised above precious archeological soil. The “real name” of this place is ‘Tel Hevron’, because it is the old old city. There is a 4,000-year-old staircase here, wedged between structures from the time of Noah (4,500 years) and Abraham and Sarah (3,700 years). The Tomb of Jesse and Ruth is nearby.
It’s a nifty way to protect priceless historical ruins and still use the land for practical purposes. What a metaphor for the State of Israel: a flourishing, booming society atop the ancient roots it reveres. And what a profound change from the wholesale despoliation of the Temple Mount by the Islamic authorities, which dug up tens of thousands of tonnes of precious archeological soil and dumped it in a valley.
*** *** *** *** ***
Across the road, our car is parked next to where the gates of Biblical Hebron are believed to be buried – the exact spot where Abraham purchased the Machpelah. But the land remains unexcavated: an Arab house sits atop it. The house is fronted with an enormous frame of metal meshing. I remember it: I was here last week too, when this quiet street was the scene of a dramatic face-off.
“What is the purpose of this net?” I ask.
Two reasons, David says. One: “It’s to stop the kids falling out of the window”. And two: it’s “great propaganda” for the Arabs, so they can tell tourists that the settlers throw rocks at at them. Houses in other parts of the city are not fronted by such a net, but maybe the children there are more responsible, or their parents more reckless.
Do settlers throw rocks at Arabs? “Not that I know of,” David says casually, but when pressed, admits there are some such instances. “But when I was a kid in New Jersey, we used to throw rocks at each other all the time.” And in any case, “they throw rocks at us all the time” – and that’s not to mention the regular firebombs.
We drive along Shuhada Street – or as I should say, King David Street. ‘Shuhada’ comes from the Arabic shaheed, meaning ‘martyr’ – a common euphemism for ‘terrorist’. In a city where every pebble has historical significance, siding with an Arabic designation that glorifies the killers of Jews is a dangerous concession.
The street is quiet. This one-kilometre stretch of road is the only place in Hebron where the Arabs have no access. Not so coincidentally, it is also the only place in Hebron where Jews can walk freely without fear of attack. The army sealed it off to Arab pedestrians, David explains, “when they started shooting at us” in the Intifada. Jews here also faced acid attacks until the military declared this a closed zone. Arab shopkeepers were compensated and sent to the other side of town.
“This was all closed because of them,” David emphasises. He is thoroughly unimpressed by the claim, advanced by Breaking the Silence, that Israeli society is paying a “moral price” to be here. “Don’t talk to me about Arab suffering,” David tells me later. “The Arabs here aren’t suffering, and if they are, it’s not our fault.” The Arabs “neglect to think that if they start a war, they might lose. There’s a price to pay.”
Later on, David pulls a Talmud off his shelf to show me a bullet hole clean through its heart. Why do the Arabs face restrictions on movement in Hebron? “Because of that,” he says.
Even Dorit Beinisch, then-president of the Supreme Court and hardly a partisan of the settler movement, concurred that the closures were necessary for the security of the local Jewish community, when an appeal to reopen the street was brought to the nation’s highest court, which has so often ruled against the army.
Of course not all Arabs are violent Jew-killers. David remembers fondly the days when a local Arab carpenter could fix up his flat. But peaceful coexistence collapsed in the first Intifada, when Arabs were threatened with death if seen in the company of Jews. One of the Jewish families at Tel Rumeida even offered refuge for an Arab family accused of collaboration. Thus the extremists cowed peaceful civilians into submission: “They’re afraid to speak up, because they might wake up with their head detached from their shoulders.”
So no, there is nothing “immoral” in Jews taking necessary, non-violent steps to protect their own lives when threatened with jihadism.
“Is it immoral for a parent to tell his child to stay in his room?”
When tour groups come to Hebron, they are taken straight to Shuhada Street: “They think this is Hebron – that’s all there is.” But Arab terrorism resulted in two restrictions, the other barring Jews from the rest of this city. “Why can’t I have access to 97% of the city?”
“Because they’d kill you?” I suggest.
“There you go.”
*** *** *** *** ***
The Beit Hadassah ‘settlement’ was founded in 1979 – or rather, reopened, because it stands on the site of a Jewish medical clinic established in 1893. In 1980, however, this place was struck by a terrible terrorist attack, in which six were killed – the first time innocent Jewish blood was spilled in Hebron since 1929. The building was expanded on Menachem Begin’s order in retaliation.
The museum in the basement recounts the foundational narrative of this community, from the dawn of time (or thereabouts). Hebron is located in Judea, not Palestine. The name ‘Palestina’ was assigned by the Romans, in an attempt to eradicate any Jewish connection to the land. “There’s never been a Palestinian people,” David explains. “The notion that there is a Palestinian people is probably the biggest PR bluff the world has ever known.”
The Jewish connection to Hebron was forcibly denied for centuries: the Cave of the Patriarchs was off-limits to Jews in the 700 years before the city’s liberation in 1967: under the Ottomans, Jews were permitted only to ascend to the seventh step outside. But Jews continued to coexist with Arabs here for centuries, such that by the twentieth century, some Arabs spoke Yiddish!
In 1929, this world collapsed. Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, incited violence against the Jews, accusing them of trying to conquer Jerusalem. Hebronite Jews refused weapons from the Haganah, lest this be seen as a provocation. They were massacred anyway. Some Arabs saved Jews – “but not enough”. The bloodbath ended only when a British officer thought he too was about to be attacked and fired shots into the mob. The British expelled the surviving Jews, as the easier option to protecting them.
In the 1930s, the Jews tried to rebuild a presence here, but again were chucked out again by the British, ostensibly for their own good. The second holiest city in Judaism was ethnically cleansed of its Jews, and was to remain Judeinrein until Israeli troops liberated it in 1967.
“We didn’t conquer a city: we came home.”
This travel diary is the third in a series of four on Hebron:
- Hebron through my Left eye: Part I
- Hebron through my Left eye: Part II
- Hebron through my Right eye: Part I (this one)
- Hebron through my Right eye: Part II (coming soon)
If you think I’ve got the wrong end of the stick and want to give me a tour around this land yourself to see it from a different angle, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the Hebron Fund website to book a tour to Hebron.