The city of Hebron is commonly talked about as the epicentre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a microcosm of its problems. 200,000 Arabs live in Hebron, and about 800 Jews. 300 IDF soldiers guard these Jews as well as the holy site – for both Jews and Muslims – the Cave of Patriarchs, which is also a National Heritage Site. In 1997, the Hebron Treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities set the border between Muslim and Jewish Hebron: Muslims got over 80%, and Jews got 3% for living and the rest for security needs. However, the friction between Jews and Muslims on the borderline was too high, and after a number of terror attacks (including a 10-months-old Jewish baby being killed by a Palestinian sniper), the main road on the Jewish side was closed to Arab businesses and is patrolled heavily by the IDF.
The international community and the Israeli left-wing are deeply involved with Hebron. Endless funds are being poured into the city, hoping to ease what many people see as injustice towards the Palestinian population. Great focus is put on the 3% of the territory where Palestinian cannot move freely, and can only enter after going through a security check by Israeli soldiers. International NGOs, media, activists etc. tour Hebron weekly, carefully shown around by local anti-settlement NGOs who show them a well-put-together picture of oppression, discrimination and apartheid.
There are enough people who are willing to buy this narrative and to ask no questions; it helps them strengthen their image of Israel as a terrible entity which systematically oppresses the Palestinians. But for those who are not so biased and are interested in a more complex and wholesome picture of the reality in Hebron, it’s worth looking at some of the headlines of the past week:
The Jewish community of Hebron has been in the headlines a lot lately, due to a significant date for the city: exactly 90 years have passed since the massacre of 1929.
In one terrible week at the end of August 1929, local Arabs assaulted a number of Jewish communities all over Israel: Jerusalem, Safed, Gaza, Haifa and many more. Brutal acts of violence, rape and murder took place, resulting most of the Jews having to abandon their homes. 133 Jews – children, women, men and elderly – met brutal deaths, and hundreds were injured. Jewish property was looted and never returned. The summer of 1929 became a collective trauma for years to come.
The massacre in Hebron stood out as extraordinarily violent. What added to the shock of the Jewish residents was that it all happened under the open eye of the local British police, who only interfered when they felt the Arab mob was getting out of hand and might attack them. 67 Jews were murdered and the houses and property of Jewish Hebron were totally destroyed, bringing an end to a Jewish community who had lived in the city for hundreds of years.
After the war of 1967, it seemed almost natural to renew the Jewish residence in Hebron; after all, there was no ‘occupation’ to be blamed for, as there were already several houses and areas that were identified as Jewish property from before 1929. However, it took over a decade for the Israeli government to decide to resettle Hebron. In 1980, local terrorists attacked a group of young Jewish civilians returning from the Shabbath prayers, killing six of them. Soon after, the Israeli government decided it was time to resettle the Jewish territory in Hebron.
By the way, one of the terrorists in the 1980 attack, Taysier Abu-Snena, says that till today he is proud of what he did; he was elected in 2017 to be mayor of Hebron.
Today, the Jews in Hebron, and those in favour of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, ask for two main things: a permit to resettle any Jewish property that was looted in 1929, and for the State of Israel to invest properly in the Cave of Patriarchs, with steps such as building a lift for disabled – which will, of course, serve Jews and Muslims as one.
Sadly, Prime Minister Netanyahu is refraining from allowing any of these. He senses, I assume, that any change in Hebron will be considered by the Palestinians and by the international community as harming an already-sensitive situation. Even if Jews have lived in Hebron for hundreds of years; even if the only reason they were ever out of Hebron is because their neighbors massacred them; even if there is property that is legally registered as belonging to Jews, standing empty, waiting for historical justice; the Palestinians and many actors in the international community would see this as extreme violation of Palestinian rights.
There is much to say about hypocrisy, of course, and about the choice that many people make to constantly ignore, or justify, Palestinian violence, and ignore, or justify, violation of Jewish human rights. But the core issue here is the framing we give the situation in Hebron when we want to discuss it:
The question usually asked about Hebron is – why on earth are 800 Jews living amongst 200,000 Palestinians, forcing the intense guarding of 300 soldiers that results with endless friction and bloodshed? Why should a small number of extremists cause an ongoing decrease in the wellbeing of almost a quarter of a million people? What moral justification is there to restrict so many Palestinians and to endanger so many soldiers?
But though these questions are constantly asked, they aren’t the right questions.
What we should be asking is: why can’t 200,000 Palestinians bear the presence of 800 Jews, to an extent that it demands 300 soldiers to take care of them? Why can’t they tolerate a small Jewish neighbourhood – that was only ever abandoned because their Palestinian forefathers had slaughtered the Jewish ones? Why have they made, over the years, endless attempts to hurt people who rightly live in their own property, making it so dangerous for these people that their lives demand such heavy guarding?
Hebron is the ultimate test for one simple question: if there is any willingness on the Palestinian side to live peacefully beside Jews. If they can bring themselves to tolerate a Jewish community that has no aspiration to anything but to resettle its lost property and re-establish a community that has existed for hundreds of years. If even that is too much for them, this is a serious wake-up call for anyone who wants to believe in hope for future peace.