Hebron Past and Present

Ninety years ago the venerable Jewish community of Hebron, burial site of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs and King David’s first capitol city, was decimated by marauding Arab mobs. Jews had lived and prayed in Hebron ever since biblical antiquity. The towering Machpelah shrine that encloses the ancestral tombs was built by King Herod. Like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, it had remained a sacred place of Jewish worship ever since.

The 1929 Arab slaughter of 67 Jewish men, women and children drove terrified survivors from the city. Nearly four decades later, amid the euphoria of Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War, a cohort of Jews led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger returned to reclaim Hebron for the Jewish people. Their passionate synthesis of religion and nationalism eventually restored a Jewish community amid the ruins of the 1929 massacre. Some six hundred Jews, joined by yeshiva students, now live at the edge of Arab Hebron, where nearly 200,000 Palestinians inhabit the thriving commercial center of the West Bank.

Early in the morning of the Purim holiday in 1993 Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the chief medical officer for the Jewish community, entered Machpelah where hundred of Muslims were praying in Isaac Hall. In previous months an Israeli soldier, a yeshiva student, and a Soviet refusenik and his son had been murdered by Hebron Arabs. Mordechai Lapid, the refusenik, had died in Goldstein’s arms. During the week before Purim, Jews at prayer in Machpelah heard Arabs screaming Etbach el Yahud (“Kill the Jews.”) Driven by sorrow and fury, Goldstein opened fire with his Galil assault rifle and murdered 29 Muslims before he was beaten to death.

In the wake of the Goldstein massacre, with agreement from the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority, a Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was established to monitor the situation, record breaches of international humanitarian law, promote a feeling of security for Palestinian residents and “observe the enhancement of peace and prosperity among Palestinians.” There was no provision for enhancing the security of Jewish residents in the ancient Jewish Quarter, who comprise a tiny minority surrounded by Arabs and require IDF protection for their safety and lives.

TIPH was envisioned as a temporary agency, with its mandate renewable every three months. Dedicated to encouraging the “normalization of civil and economic life” in Hebron, it is charged with reporting “damages to private property caused by IDF or settlers”; “prolonged ID checks or verbal and physical harassments by IDF personnel”; and “other breaches of international and human rights standards.”

In sum, since it is mandated only to monitor the behavior of Jews while protecting the welfare only of Palestinians, TIPH is not expected to be neutral. Little wonder that its palpable bias infuriates Israeli residents in Hebron, some of whom have equated its monitors with Nazi soldiers. Last year the TIPH legal counsel was filmed slapping a 10-year-old Jewish boy in the face.

In its report of 20 years of activity in Hebron, TIPH predictably concluded that Israel “routinely violates international law in Hebron” and that it is in “severe and regular breach” of the rights of local Palestinians. It preposterously asserted that the presence of any Israeli community in Hebron, the oldest Jewish city in the Land of Israel – inhabited by Jews millennia before the appearance of Islam — violates international law.

Prime Minister Netanyahu recently indicated that he might not renew the TIPH mandate. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that “it is unclear why we even need such a force that is not neutral.” According to Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, TIPH has become “a hostile presence” in Hebron “that sees itself solely as a critic of the IDF, while blatantly ignoring Palestinian terrorist activity.”

Hebron has been a volatile city ever since World War I when the Grand Mufti began to incite violence against Jews. Its only peaceful years came during the decades between 1929 and 1968, when there were no Jews to kill in Hebron and local Arabs could stifle their murderous impulses. The time is past due for the government of Israel to drop its restrictive quota on Jewish residents and encourage and support the rebuilding of the Jewish community, thereby affirming the unrivaled significance of Hebron in Jewish history in the Land of Israel.

About the Author
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009). His new book, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, will be published in February by Academic Studies Press.