Hebron lies approximately 20 miles (30 kilometres) south of Jerusalem in what is known as Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank, or ‘the territories’ or ‘over the green line’ or ‘in the occupied territories’.
It is within the area that many of those on the left politically in Israel believe will or should be included in a future Palestinian State. And in what many of those on the right in Israel believe should always be part of Israel.
In the ancient centre of Hebron is the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is said to contain the tomb of Abraham, and by some to be the burial places of Abraham’s wife Sarah, Isaac and Rebecah and Jacob and Leah. Some again hold that it is also the burial place of Adam and Eve. Certainly it has religious significance for people of all faiths.
The building on the site operates both as a mosque and as a synagogue, with separate entrances and praying areas for Jews and Moslems.
Historicaly, the town of Hebron grew around the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and spread westward. The old Suq or market lies just west of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the centre of what is now area H2.
H1 and H2
Under the 1997 Oslo Accords, the town was divided into two areas, named H1 and H2.
H2 on the eastern side of the town includes the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Suq, and the homes of thirty thousand Palestinians. Area H1, to the west of H2, is exclusively occupied by approximately one hundred and twenty thousand Palestinians.
Palestinians who live in H2 are allowed to travel into H1 and to return, but Palestinians who live in H1 are restricted in their right to travel into H2.
Israelis are allowed into H2 but not into H1. Israelis are, in fact, not allowed to travel into any Palestinian town in the West Bank and it is only the unique situation of a Jewish community in the centre of Hebron that makes travel to this town possible for an Israeli.
Israelis must reach Hebron from Jerusalem on route 60. They are not allowed to travel on certain roads that are exclusively for Palestinians, and similarly the final stretch of the approach via route 60 is only for Israelis.
From the top of the hill at the westernmost end of H2 one can look north to the centre of H1 and see and hear the bustle and noise of the city. In contrast, H2 is more or less silent.
Almost adjoining Hebron to the north-east, is the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba. Kiryat Arba presents a pleasant aspect to the world. It has palm-tree lined avenues fronting to presentable looking buildings. It is home to seven thousand Jews from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia who are there because living accomodation is cheaper than in for example, Jerusalem, rather than their for ideological reasons.
Approximately 600 Jews live in the centre of H2. Of these about 300 are a floating population who study in a yeshiva (religious seminary) there and then return from whence they came outside Hebron. The other 300 are families that are then in the centre of Hebron for strong ideological reasons.
The Jewish presence in Hebron
The settlers today are carrying on a tradition of maintaining a Jewish presence in Hebron. Jews and Arabs lived in Hebron together through the centuries.
In the early 20th century the land passed from being part of the Ottoman Empire to being within the British Mandate. As successive waves of Jewish immigrants came to the country in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century the number of Jews in Hebron reached approximately 800. They lived there until the massacre of 67 Jews by their Arab neighbours in 1929, following which what was left of the eight hundred strong Jewish community moved to Jerusalem and elsewhere.
The years leading up to the 1929 massacre were years when Jewish nationalism was in its formative stage. Other communities of Jews in Israel had offered weapons to the Jews of Hebron so they could defend themselves but the Jews of Hebron refused the offer.
The historical reasons for the massacre depend upon which side in the conflict one listens to. According to the Arabs, the massacre was in response to the surging Jewish nationalism that threatened their own national aspirations. According to the Jewish version it was because of the anti-Jewish inflamatory agitation of the Mufti of Jerusalem who spread false rumours following localised fighting that broke out in Jerusalem between Jews and Moslems after a Moslem service on the Temple Mount.
The situation in Hebron today
The role of the army and police in Hebron area H2 is to protect the settlers. As part of a greater plan implemented throughout the West Bank, this translates into separating the Palestinians from the Jews. To this end the army has made a buffer zone between the Jews and the Palestinians. They have closed off various streets to Palestinians, with the consequence that the Suq is now deserted.
Shops are locked; others have been broken into and part-destroyed by the settlers in their attempts to extend their own influence.
Judging from some of the grafitti on the walls of locked storefronts in the Suq, some at least of the Jewish settlers in Hebron today view the refusal of the Hebron Jews to defend themselves in 1929 as akin to the ‘lambs to the slaughter’ passivity of the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.
Certainly the settlers view their own settlement in Hebron as continuing a forceful Jewish presence in what they consider is and always has been Israel. Many of the storefronts are daubed with Jewish Stars of David as a declaration that they have been ‘claimed’ by the settlers.
According to ‘Breaking The Silence’, a Jewish organization formed of soldiers who had served on the West Bank and Gaza and wished to testify about their experiences, there is evidence over the past several years of the settlers expanding their presence in Hebron.
The first stage in that incremental advance is to claim buildings lying in the buffer zone. Then, as the settlements expand, the buffer zone is extended.
This incremental advance can be seen also in the area lying between the settlements and Kiryat Arba and it appears that the eventual medium term intention is to physically link the two, rather than as now via route 60 that traverses land owned by Palestinians.
The Reality for Palestinians in Area H2
The issue of settlers in Hebron is sensitive and the attitude of successive Israeli governments has varied between open support to indifference. The role of the army and the police has mirrored this, with written orders contradicted by verbal orders given under the umbrella of temporary security measures.
Some temporary security measures have been in place for three years or more and so complainants have brought matters before the courts but with little long term resolution of the problems.
These problems include not being able to enter or leave their houses from the street but instead having to enter and exit over rooftops and rough ground.
This is especially problematic for the very young or old or for those who are infirm or ill. Additionally, hundreds of curfew days have been imposed, some running several days consecutively, when the Palestinian population has been required to remain in their houses twenty four hours a day. No-one likes the situation but familiarity has bred an unfortunate acceptance of the situation.