Hebron - Where the Jews and Palestinians Met and Parted Ways

Jun 11, 2009
*Special to asia!

In Hebron, Jewish settlers and Palestinians live side by side, and suffer for this proximity. Yet, while it is both an object lesson in why a deal between Israel and the Palestinians remains so elusive, Hebron may by faith, be the best hope for peaceful co-existence.

Wilder turned and show me the map pasted on the wall behind his desk. Behind him was a map from the Palestinian Tourism Ministry printed in Bethlehem. It was titled, “Tourism Map of Palestine”.

“You see what it shows. This is not the map of the West Bank or Gaza; it is the map of Israel, ” he said.

Wilder believed this was just another shred of evidence that the Palestinian authorities wanted to take over the entire country. He was also convinced that the Palestinians were trying to kill the Jews and to rid the city of them.

“Under the 1997 Accords, we gave them the South Hebron Hills and they used it to shoot at us.”

He reminded me of the Arab neighbours Israel was surrounded by, of which only Jordan and Egypt were friendly to the Jewish state. Even then, he emphasised, Jordan was comprised of a majority population of Palestinian refugees and that Islamic extremists could take over after aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak died.

“We are going to give them another state from which to kill us? You have got to be crazy. If since (the) Oslo (Peace Accords) were signed, and there were no terror attacks, I may believe what I believe what I believed then.”


david wilder office

The office of David Wilder, spokesperson for the city's Jewish community

Wilder's office in the H2 area is just a stone's throw from the mosque. Where most would have photos of loved ones displayed, he had pictures of Israelis who had been killed by Palestinians here in Hebron. On his waist, he carried a revolver which he said he did not like carrying, but had to because “they are trying to kill us.”

Of the IDF which is ostensibly here to protect the Israeli citizens, he said, “Sometimes they do what we want and sometimes they don't.”

In this conflict, the IDF soldiers manning the over 100 checkpoints in Hebron seemed to be finding themselves in a dubious position as an occupying force.

The 1997 Hebron Accords state that:

Israel will retain all powers and responsibilities for internal security and public order in Area H-2. In addition, Israel will continue to carry the responsibility for overall security of Israelis.

On paper it seemed fair, but the situation in Hebron meant that more often than not, the soldiers would find themselves caught between Israeli settlers and Palestinians who accuse them of taking the settlers' side.

For these soldiers, this was a decision they had to make on the spot, and usually, maintaining “internal security and public order” and “overall security of Israelis”. In reality, neutrality in tensed situations – while not impossible – was a tall order demanded of these soldiers, many of whom may be in their late teens or early twenties. Were the Palestinians ingrained into their consciousness as the enemy?

Layla tends a shop in the Old City selling handicrafts made by a Palestinian women's cooperative. IDF soldiers used to raid the shop frequently. Six months ago, as the fighting in Gaza broke out and tensions were rife, she got a visit from the soldiers. she had a t-shirt with the Palestinian nationalistic cartoon character Handala on it. The problem the soldiers had was that Handala – usually depicted with his hands behind his back – was carrying a rifle.

A soldier removed the t-shirt and when Layla's sister Nawal came, she demanded that he returned it. The soldier agreed to do so, if she did not put it up again. Nawal agreed

A few days later, the soldier came back with six others. By then Nawal had made another 100 similar t-shirts.

“You encourage fighting with this,” said the soldiers, referring to the t-shirt. Nawal denied, saying it was “to make money, just for business.”

The exchange soon escalated into one soldier pointing a rifle at her head and threatening her, while the others verbally abused. Nawal only counted on being acquainted with various international groups and volunteers to be let off in the end. Others less well-connected had found themselves arrested and beaten.


barricades at hebron

An IDF-manned checkpoint guards this barricade that separates the Arab from the Jewish part of Hebron

Accounts of heavy-handed actions and bias on the part of the IDF soldiers against the Palestinians abound, and it perhaps just underscored the unrealistic expectations that the Israelis and Palestinians can co-govern as set out by the 1997 Hebron Accords. Accordingly this throws the future of the West Bank into deep crisis.

Between the Jewish settlements – established by previous Israeli governments – that nestled within and next to Palestinian cities, and contentious disputes over control of territory and religious sites common to both Jews and Muslims, there doesn't seem to be much space left over for peace to maneuver.

What hope then is there for the Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank?

One. The 1929 massacre of 400 Jews in Hebron.

The grand mufti or Muslim spiritual leader in Jerusalem had been inciting anti-Jewish sentiments. According to one account, he had declared falsely at Jews had tried to conquer the Temple Mount which holds the al-Aqsa mosque. Incensed, the Palestinians began attacking Jews in Hebron, killing 67.

Wilder and the Palestinians may find little in common, but this is the one point they agree on. The death toll could have been much higher. The reason it wasn't was that Palestinians then had risked their lives to hide Jews in their homes from the angry mobs. One woman even stood on the roof of her home, tearing off her headscarf, declaring to the crowds gathered below that the Jews she hid in her home were not there.

After 1929, the Jews were expelled from Hebron and they only returned after it was captured by the IDF in 1967.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

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