Hebron: Center of the conflict

Published October 22, 2010
Around 200,000 Palestinians live in a large sprawling area; about 500 Jews live in tiny protected neighborhoods. A Jewish town (Kiryat Arba) of 8,000 residents sits on the eastern shoulder of Hebron, and provides the only way for Hebron’s Jewish community to drive to Jerusalem and the country’s center and back. This lone artery is dotted with checkpoints and soldiers as it weaves its way through a kilometer of several Arab neighborhoods, and empties traffic out into a small parking lot below the Cave of the Patriarchs that is called by Muslims the Ibrahimi Mosque or the Sanctuary of Abraham.

This iconic site, a large rectangular building with minarets on top, is a microcosm of the conflict – a large Herodian-era structure, with the signature giant stones one finds at the Western Wall, with a mosque constructed atop it. The mosque and Jewish site commemorate Abraham, and the resting place of the Jewish forebears, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

Although a Jewish community was maintained in Hebron since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews in the city were persecuted by Crusaders. After the 14th century, the Muslim rulers forbade Jews from going beyond seven steps up the staircase of the large building. Jews were driven from the city in the early 20th century; only in 1967 were Jews again able to set foot in the city and in the holy site.

The mosque and the Cave of the Patriarchs are today shared by Jews and Muslims, with Muslims praying in one portion and Jews in the other.

(B'Tselem)

(B’Tselem)

Heading west from the site along the deserted Shuhada Street, which, for security reasons, has been closed to Palestinian traffic since the 1990s, one comes to the warren-like Jewish neighborhood of Avraham Avinu. IDF soldiers patrol it and men watch above it. Past more deserted streets one comes to the Beit Romano complex and the Beit Hadassah museum, a pretty stone building with stone stars of David in the front. Southeast of that complex, on a hill that overlooks Hebron, is Tel Rumeida, where some additional Jewish families live, along with an IDF base and a Jewish cemetery.

For Palestinians, this administrative setup, where 160,000 Arabs live in a Palestinian Authority controlled area called H1 and 40,000 Arabs live in another area the IDF controls called H2 (which is closer to the Jewish neighborhoods), is an injustice of epic proportions, symbolic of all the problems of Israeli rule. For the Jewish residents it is also an epic injustice: The government refuses to allow them to build or buy houses, to expand their confined space or develop closed areas – to have a thriving Jewish community.

Ghosts of 1929

By Laura Kelly and Seth J. Frantzman

soon. This is leading nowhere,” says Lina A.

“The situation is crazy, I hope it will stop soon.” Lina was born in Hebron in 1990 and after studies in Al-Quds University, east of Jerusalem in Abu Dis, she finds herself spending more time in the city of her birth. She strolls down Shuhada Street, the main street for Jewish residents, which leads from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in central Hebron toward the small Jewish community on the hill above, called Tel Rumeida.

It’s a supremely quiet day, but there is a feeling of being anesthetized – that there is violence under the surface.

“Those who started the stabbing have harmed our everyday lives. Now the soldiers are suspicious of everyone, and I have to go through the checkpoint with my hands up, even if my phone is ringing. If I reach for it, I fear they will shoot me,” says Lina. “This is not a third intifada, this is just leading to more anger.”

A few minutes before, Lina – wearing a colorful hijab and tight dark blue jeans – had crossed through the “container” checkpoint at the north end of Shuhada Street. It was at this checkpoint that Hadil al-Hashlamon was shot on September 22 after reportedly approaching soldiers with a knife.

Lina’s sense of fear is palpable. “Look here. This is where they killed Fadil [Qawasmi] on Saturday after they said he pulled a knife. But what really happened? He was harassed by a settler. The video shows that they planted the knife afterward.”

This is where the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians collides, with the diametrically opposed viewpoints of the two sides.

For Palestinians like Lina, 18-year-old Fadil Qawasmi is a victim – an innocent teenager walking home on the street, harassed and killed.

For Jewish residents like Tzipi Shlissel, who works at the Beit Hadassah Museum down the street, Qawasmi was the perpetrator of a stabbing attack that endangered her life. She was walking on Shabbat when she passed Qawasmi. “I heard shooting and he [the Jewish man] shot the terrorist who would have come at me, it was a miracle.”

An inconclusive video that exists shows a Jewish man clad in white for Shabbat with a pistol, moments after shooting Qawasmi. Israeli soldiers, running to his aid from Beit Hadassah and the nearby “container” checkpoint are on the scene. Qawasmi is on the ground.

WHILE THE month of October races to a close, the weeks have been marred by terrorism. The murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin in the West Bank on October 1 and the stabbing death of Aharon Benita and Rabbi Nehemia Lavi in the Old City on October 3 – where Benita’s wife and two-year-old were also wounded – were shocking to Israelis.

Palestinian and Arabic social media praised the attacks, the perpetrators were revered as heroes and propaganda and instructional videos were released promoting more violent attacks.

Palestinians killed by Israeli forces during riots further inflamed tensions, allowing no end to a Sisyphean cycle of violence, as foreign media have categorized it. Many blamed Palestinians frustration and anger at the occupation boiling over.

But others looked to the lessons of history as to what inspired the third intifada. Threats to the change of the status quo to al-Aksa Mosque – on the Temple Mount – visits and provocations by right-wing Israeli politicians, Jewish tours on the compound and restrictions of entrance to those of a certain age supported Palestinian leaders rhetoric that a threat to Islam’s third-holiest site was mounting.

“We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a television interview on Palestinian TV on September 16. “… All of their steps, we will not allow them. All these divisions, al-Aksa is ours, and the [Church of the] Holy Sepulcher is ours, everything is ours, all ours. They [the Jews] have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet and we won’t allow them to.”

Despite repeated claims from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the status quo is not in danger – the Palestinian street fumes.

The word on everyone’s lips in Hebron seems to be 1929, the year of the brutal massacre of 67 Jews at the hands of an Arab mob, many of whom had personally known the Jewish residents they were killing. It has similarities with the events today because it stemmed from a dispute over the Temple Mount and al-Aksa compound. It also conjures up competing “narratives.” Muslims like to talk about the 19 Muslim families who saved the 300 Jews who survived the massacre.

FOR SHLISSEL, the lessons of the Hebron pogrom of 1929 are part of her family history. Shlissel was named for her grandmother Tzipora, who survived the massacre along with her sister Leah.

As tensions flared in Jerusalem over perceived threats to al-Aksa Mosque nearly 90 years ago, Tzipora and Leah barricaded themselves in Leah’s home – refusing an offer from the head of the community Eliezer Dan Slonim, to gather in his home with other members of the community.

Slonim counted on his good relations with his Arab neighbors to protect himself, his family and his community from the mounting violence. By night’s end, Slonim and 23 other people would be brutally murdered.

“My grandmother was standing by a window and Leah grabbed her hand to have her move away. At that moment Arabs threw a huge rock through the window and it landed right where my grandmother was standing before. This is our own personal miracle, it’s how I’m here today.”

Shlissel, 50, is a tour guide in the Beit Hadassah museum in the small and central Jewish community in Hebron. An underground cavern of Arabic arches, the museum moves through five small rooms detailing the history, tragedy and triumph of the Jewish community in Hebron.

The room dedicated to the atrocities of the 1929 pogrom displays the weapons used by the Arabs and photos of the carnage. A memorial with photos of the murdered is illuminated with a soft red light in the dark room. Jewish gravestones, destroyed earlier and used to pave roads, have been reclaimed as part of the memorial.

“This was the big shock of Hebron. They thought they lived together, yet suddenly their friends, their neighbors, came to murder them. Eliezer Dan Slonim’s home was the worst site – 24 people were murdered there.”

Shlissel is the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, who was stabbed to death in his Hebron caravan in 1998 by an Arab man who had climbed in through the window. It was a defining moment in strengthening the resolve of the Jewish community in the city.

Shlissel moved to Hebron with her husband and children a few years later in 2001.

“The last story is what happened here this Shabbat. I went to the minyan at 8:00 a.m. and I met someone who came back from the early minyan, here, on this road. I said hello. I continued, he kept walking, then I heard shooting. I turned around I saw that he shot a terrorist who had come at him with a knife; it was just behind me. If he hadn’t been there, the terrorist would have come for me. This was such a miracle you cannot imagine…

“I feel that it continues, all the time. They murdered my father with a knife and they almost murdered me.”

Outside the museum, a bit of tear gas can be smelled in the air. Booms are heard in the distance; the Israeli army is clashing with youth somewhere nearby.

But here, in this tranquil setting, with a young boy playing in a playground, it is quiet. Upstairs, an Israeli officer is briefing his soldiers about the situation.

There is a dissonance. Quiet here, but armies of men to protect it.

URI KARZEN is a jovial and smiling man. As the director-general of the Jewish community in Hebron, he says their situation is not much different than the rest of the country at the moment.

The community houses about 500 Jews today and is spread out from near the Cave of the Patriarchs, up Shuhada Street to Tel Rumeida. The walls of the hall leading to his office are decorated with election posters from past decades.

Like many others in the community, he has been here for 30 years. On one wall is a cartoon from December 1993 where protests are being held against prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. A policeman in the frame is saying that despite a shooting attack on Hebron Jews, he is too busy elsewhere. That’s the larger feeling among many Jews here, the state doesn’t care about them or their community. It doesn’t care about the Jewish roots here, or expanding Jewish communities. It doesn’t recognize the great tourism potential of the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Karzen sits at his quiet desk in an air-conditioned room. He has slender hands, a full gray beard and a crocheted kippa. He meets us in his basement office, sparsely decorated, save for two posters: an aerial shot of the Cave of the Patriarchs and a colorful painting of the road leading to ancient Jerusalem.

Because Hebron is divided – H1 under Palestinian control and H2 under Israeli administration – Karzen says there’s not much contact and not much friction between the two groups.

“In H1 there are different political or terrorist elements engaging the soldiers with rock throwing,” he says, “[but it] doesn’t affect the Jewish community.”

At least not until last Saturday, when the disputed stabbing incident took place on Shuhada Street.

“In the rest of the country they are seeing an uptick in gun sales. Here, we have guns, but we haven’t taken them out in three years. Now we’re dusting them off and checking if they still work.”

There were also two terrorist attacks outside Kiryat Arba, the neighboring Jewish town, and there have been other recent stabbings around Hebron, targeting soldiers and police.

“Hebron has always been a Jewish city,” Karzen says. “This is one of the most important seats of our religion.”

Karzen relates that the Cave of the Patriarchs brings in a million tourists a year. On a regular day, he explains, the building is divided: 70 percent to the Muslims and 30 percent to the Jews.

Once a year, each side gets 10 days of full access to the holy site.

“Al-Aksa was the holiest place to Jewish people; this is total bigotry that the Jews can’t pray there. It is a recurring theme that fired up the Arabs in 1929 and so on and so forth, before there was a state of Israel,” he says.

Karzen is adamant that the best place for Arabs in the Middle East to live is in Israel, and he is optimistic about the future.

“Once Arabs realize that the Jews aren’t going anywhere, everyone will have a much easier future.”

MOHAMMED MOHTASEB, 24, sits outside his father’s ceramics and textile shop on the empty street across from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, or as he knows it, the Ibrahimi Mosque. The street is a ghostly no man’s land where Palestinians and Israelis can cross paths.

There’s a heavy army presence, with forces stationed around every corner. At a pillbox leading to H1, the Palestinian side, youths throw stones from a neighboring roof at Israeli forces. “Here there are clashes, but its not really crazy clashes,” Mohtaseb offers.

Mohtaseb runs a tour company called Explore West Bank. He’s been giving tours of his city since he was 15 years old.

While he chose the name for its apolitical nature – “We can all agree that it’s called the West Bank” – he mostly wants to attract pro-Israel, English-speaking tourists. He says his tours are political, trying to explain and show the injustices done towards the Palestinians and explaining the Muslim connection to the city.

He calls the recent wave of terrorism the “third intifada” and says it has affected Hebron. Fewer locals are walking around, and there’s a noticeable drop in tourism. The day before, a tour group of 40 people canceled their tour with him.

This uprising, he asserts, is because Israelis are treading on al-Aksa Mosque compound. “It’s enough that they impose age restrictions to Muslims wishing to go up there, but for it to become a place of Jewish prayer,” Mohtaseb says, “this is interfering with the rights of the Palestinians.” As a Hebronite, Mohtaseb sees parallels between the Jewish presence at the Cave of the Patriarchs and what’s happening at al-Aksa. “This is step by step… this is how it started.”

“What happens now in al-Aksa Mosque, it’s not about what Jews want, its about what Zionist ideals want, to have conflict and take over people’s land.”

Mohtaseb looks at the history of the Ibrahimi Mosque from the time of the Crusaders, how in the 11th century they turned the then-mosque into a church and banned Muslims from entering.

It became a mosque again under Saladin at the end of the 12th century, but it wasn’t until 1968 that Jews were finally allowed to enter. Mohtaseb believes that Palestinians must refuse to allow this to happen to al-Aksa, and that they are fearful that it is becoming a reality.

“When [Jews] start going to al-Aksa Mosque, people will die for it, this is how the revolution or intifada started.”

Hebron itself didn’t start “burning,” in Mohtaseb’s words, until after October 12, the day of the Pisgat Ze’ev terrorist attack. Cousins Hassan and Ahmed Mansara, ages 15 and 13 respectively, went on a stabbing spree of the Israeli neighborhood, critically wounding a 13-year-old boy and wounding a 24 year old. Hassan was shot and killed by security forces and a car hit Ahmed. He was released from Hadassah University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem on Monday.

“Now here’s the thing that we know,” Mohtaseb relates, “it was a car accident and he [Ahmed] had nothing with him.”

Mohtaseb tells of a two-minute-and- 30-second video clip that shows Ahmed bleeding, writhing and gasping for air on the ground while an Israeli man curses at him in Hebrew. Mohtaseb fixates on this, the gruesomeness of seeing a young boy bleeding, being cursed at, and security forces standing around doing nothing.

What Mohtaseb didn’t see – and what many Palestinians didn’t see – is video footage released by Israeli police of Mansara stabbing people.

For Palestinians, it makes sense that they would see it this way – it could be them next. “Regular people at the checkpoint can be arrested for doing nothing, which is what happened to me last week.”

Mohtaseb relates that he was leading a tour group and they were finishing up at the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Cave of the Patriarchs). When going in, the soldiers asked for him to hand over his ID – “it happens, they ask for your identity and you get it back on the way out” – but when he exited they detained him.

They brought him to the local police station, accused him of throwing rocks, said that they had photographic evidence and that he had been in hiding for two days. Mohtaseb says they held him for five hours before a short interview, and then they let him go.

“Of course I have anger but it’s under control. I’m not the only one, there are a lot of people who have this mentality. I consider myself with a gift from God that I can control myself despite this whole situation, and still present my people in a peaceful way.”

He believes that Jews and Muslims can live together. “We don’t want to throw you into the sea,” he says. But Mohtaseb thinks the two-state solution is dead.

For Lina, it is a depressing reality. She looks at the old dilapidating buildings falling into disrepair, the storefronts that were once a bustling street of business, closed since the second intifada.

One sign says, improbably, “Turkish Bath.” Was there once a thriving bathhouse culture here? Lina doesn’t recall. Prevented from walking further on Shuhada Street, because many Palestinians are barred from certain areas bordering the Jewish community, Lina takes a roundabout route up by the Qurdoba School that overlooks Hebron. For an ancient city, site of the Jewish Patriarchs, it occurs now how improbable it is that its old city was built in a valley. To the south is a large Muslim cemetery. Here are buried the old families of Hebron, many of whom now have relatives in Jerusalem, to which they migrated in the early and mid-20th century.

“The real intifada should be against the Palestinian Authority,” says Lina.

“We need a new leader. The violence against Israeli settlers will lead nowhere. It doesn’t bring us rights and freedoms, just more checkpoints, more walls and more Israeli security forces.”

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