Hardcore fanaticism at Hebron – A visit of one of the West Bank’s most notorious towns and the first of many Jewish settlements.

I hear there was a royal wedding somewhere in the world today.  Well, I missed it.  Hebron was infinitely more fascinating.  But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of this town.

Settlements are perhaps the most disputed contemporary issue causing ongoing worldwide contempt and controversy.  Over the last two weeks I have passed many such settlements.  Often perched on hilltops, surrounded by barbed wire, and guarded by military posts, they are exclusive enclaves built regardless of UN condemnation or the hardship they pose on the surrounding population.  Hebron was the first and a turning point in recent Jewish history.  What started out as the longing for being in the place of the forefathers escalated into religious fanaticism, feeling victimized and turning to victimization.

Hebron has a history of coexistence that goes way back and lasted for hundreds of years.  Contemporary history probably makes the most sense when started in 1929:  Palestinian nationalists massacred over 60 of their Jewish neighbors in response to Zionist movements while the British stood idly by and on top of that evacuated the rest of the Jewish population to avoid further conflict between the two groups.  Jews were banned from one of their most ancient and most holy sites.  Hebron features prominently in the bible.  It holds a shrine dedicated to the entire Abraham family: his sons, and their wives.  It is known as the shrine of the patriarchs.  It is a holy site second only to Jerusalem and sacred once again to all three religions.

To this day a strict separation of the shrine is observed into a mosque and a synagogue.  Each group prays separately and allows the other in on only a few occasions per year.  I was able to visit the synagogue today but not the mosque as it was Friday.  Had I come any other day both parts would have been open to me as belonging to neither religion.

After the controversial 1967 war, the redrawn borders and the power shifts in the country, some of the most extremist ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers returned for a Seder and never left.  More and more joined them and they began to reclaim property in the city center.  “Reclaim”, of course is a euphemism for moving out Arab residents who at that time most certainly were not the culprits of the 1929 massacre.  They had vital homes and shops in the area.  Middlemen bought their property at low prices and before anyone fully understood the huge implications of this move for the future and for other such settlements, Israeli citizens had taken over the center of this Palestinian town.  The Israeli government was pushed into a bind to protect them.  Since then, about 500 settlers have lived in the middle of the Old City of Hebron and over 7000 have moved into the more typical and less controversial outskirt new development settlements.  According to locals, it takes over 2000 soldiers to guard and protect these settlers, particularly the ones in town …

The violence between these groups has ebbed and flowed ever since and culminated in the famous Baruch Goldstein incident in 1994:  29 Muslims were killed and 200 injured while praying at the mosque during Ramadan.  The situation was out of control and both Israel and the Palestinian authorities turned to outside help:  TIPH was founded – Temporary International Presence at Hebron, a six European country civil guard monitoring the area.  I saw two of them today.

Violence may have slowed down, but it never stopped, despite TIPH.  UN resolutions were signed and broken.   Borders and zones of authority were established like nowhere else.  Israel is divided into Zone A, B, C; Hebron is divided into zone H1 and H2.  Contrary to popular belief, most areas of Hebron are completely off limits to Jews!  But the reality is that in order to guard the tiny central town settlement and to insure its safety, over 1000 shops (according to local sources) were closed by Israeli military.  This effectively turned the downtown area into a ghost town crippling local businesses and restricting movement, not to mention the effect this all had on tourism and pilgrims so vital, for example, for Bethlehem.

Walking through the Arab souq means looking at rows of closed stores and up into a mesh of wire stretched over the souq, through which you can see military towers.  Looking out from a settlement window means to look at military posts and barbed wire.  Even though the residences themselves gleam in the white new sandstone so typical of the area, they are located next to the more shabby looking, older Arab residences.

Some of the Arab apartments are only feet away from their Jewish neighbors.  Today, Arabs are still offered buy-outs.  A few resist mainly out of principle and are allowed to stay, but at great hardship and loss of business.  Jewish residents are often armed – I watched a man with a machine gun over his shoulder push a baby stroller – a bizarre sight!

A trip to the revered tomb of Ruth takes you through a massive military post, and through a solid aluminum corridor topped with barbed wire, to a hilltop guarded by a lone soldier on a metal balcony.  The site could be so tranquil, but I think Ruth would turn in her grave could she see what has happened to her town.  Interestingly enough, the soldiers did not mind me photographing just about anything, anywhere.

Inside the settlement, a plaque at almost every corner reminds of the various victims of violence: Jewish children, men, and women who died in the various outbreaks of violence.  I would not be surprised if similar markers can be found outside, put up by the Palestinians to commemorate their martyrs.  It could happen today.  As I was boarding the bus to leave town I heard gun shots.  Nobody even looked up or concerned…

Blue markers chronicle the history of the area going back to biblical times – clearly an attempt of justification for the current settlement.  A small museum displays and describes the massacre of 1929 and the bravery of the early settlers in the 1960s.  But is this bravery?

How can anyone, and I mean anyone, anywhere in the world construct happiness on the backs of others’ suffering?! How can anyone laugh or sleep or go about their business knowing that others lost everything to afford you this “normal” life?  I have no idea what it takes to convince yourself of this kind of twisted justice; but these settlers have and so have, of course the Palestinians on the other side, not just in Hebron.

I spoke to one of each:  A woman in a trailer who clearly was proud of her presence there, claiming the birthright of the Jews.   One of the historical signs supported her sentiments.  Paraphrased, it read:  “The restitution of stolen Jewish property is a legal and moral imperative”.  To disown and displace Arab Muslims means nothing to her.  I also visited a Palestinian home right off the souq – one of those whose roof top pretty much touches the wall of a settlement home.  The owner was utterly proud of his love for Hizbollah and prominently-displayed Hizbollah leaders in his living room.  To him, to eliminate the State of Israel and all the Jews with it is the goal, and as imperative as it is for the woman on the other side to claim her birthright.  They both gave me the chills.

This was the most depressing town I have ever seen.  Nothing in Iraq or anywhere else in the world even comes close to it for me.

In all fairness I have to say this:  It is wrong to judge all Arabs or Muslims, or even the majority by the actions and ideas of Hamas, Hizbollah, or other extremist organizations.  It is equally wrong to judge all Jews or Israelis, or even the majority of Jews, by their fanatics.  But Hebron seems to draw them in, the fanatics of all sorts, even the ones from the outside, Christian NGO’s (Non-governmental organizations) among them!  Hebron stands for extremism on all sides.  At its best it could be a warning sign for all of us on what not to do, what not to turn into and what not to pursue.

Wouldn’t this be a good place to raise the Maundy Thursday question:  Is it I?!

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. Elisabeth, 1929 was NOT the first time the Arabs massacred the Jews of Hebron. in the 1830s which was SEVERAL DECADES BEFORE ZIONISM the Arabs massacred the INDIGENOUS PRE-ZIONIST Jewish community of Hebron.

  2. I do not understand how you can possibly equate the Arabs’ desire to eliminate Israel and all of the Jews in it with the desire of Jews to live on their ancient land. More than a million Moslems live in Israel and enjoy all rights under the law. What is wrong with Jews living in Judea and Samaria? Since when is it morally acceptable for any country, especially the ancient Jewish lands, to be officially Judenrein??? Jordan, too, by the way, is officially Judenrein. Why is that o.k.?