I had not visited Hebron for forty years ago until my synagogue group did earlier this month. In this time so much yet so little has changed.
In 1973 the city and surroundings had 40,000 Arab Muslim residents and 150 Jews. Today, there are 250,000 Palestinians and 8500 Jews.
A holy city to both religions because of the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ burial caves (Genesis 23 - in this week's Torah portion Chayei Sarah) and it being located along an ancient trading route, Hebron has been vulnerable to multiple conquests and violence since the time of Abraham.
Israel has controlled the area since 1967, and as part of the Oslo process, Israel and the Palestinians signed the “Hebron Agreement” in which the city was split into two sectors: H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2, controlled by Israel.
Our group visited H2 with David Wilder, the spokesmen for the Hebron Jewish community.
Wilder is a religious settler who packs a pistol on his hip over which is draped his tzitzit. He is a passionate defender of the religious right of Jews to Hebron. He says there is no such thing as the Palestinian people, that the Arabs there have no distinct identity separate from Arabs in the Middle East, and that they have contributed nothing of lasting value to the advancement of civilization, in contrast to Judaism and the Jewish people.
While denying Palestinians their national identity he demands that they recognize our Jewish religious and national rights. He is resentful that Arabs have access to 97% of the city under the Hebron Agreement while Jews have access to 3%.
Wilder denies that he is an “extremist!” Palestinians and most Israelis don’t agree.
He opposes a two-state solution, and when challenged by evidence of settler and Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians, he said these are lies disseminated by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups.
Here are some of those “lies”:
In 2013 Palestinians were barred from using Shuhada Street, their principal commercial thoroughfare in H2. In recent years due to settler violence, half the Arab shops in H2 have gone out of business.
The Israeli human rights organization B'tzelem says that "grave violations" of Palestinian human rights have occurred in Hebron because of the "presence of the settlers within the city" and that there has been less than an adequate response from Israeli security forces in stopping the violations. B’tzelem cites regular incidents of "almost daily physical violence and property damage by settlers in the city.”
In 1994 the Israeli Shamgar Commission of Inquiry concluded that Israeli authorities consistently failed to investigate or prosecute crimes committed by settlers against Palestinians.
Though much of Hebron’s Arab community is thriving in business, education and commerce, still the violations continue as is clear by the testimony of many Israeli soldiers who have been stationed there, one of whom said (courtesy of "Breaking the Silence"):
"My main difficulty … was the … Jewish community… The feeling was that we were protecting the Arabs from the Jews, … [and] … the Jews really did whatever they pleased and no one would care...I was standing guard duty ... and I see a six-year Palestinian girl [whose] whole head was an open wound….Th[is] extremely cute [Jewish] child … would regularly visit our position decided that he didn't like Palestinians walking right under his home, so he took a brick and threw it at [this little girl’s] head. Kids do whatever they please there. No one does anything about it. No one cares. Afterwards, his parents only praised him. The parents there encourage their children to behave this way. I had many such cases. 11-12 year old Jewish children beat up Palestinians and their parents come to help them along, set their dogs on them; a thousand and one stories.”
The violence, of course, goes both ways over a long period. The most egregious attack on Jews occurred in 1929 when Arab rioters murdered and butchered 70 Jewish men, women and children, and wounded 60. At the same time, 455 Jews survived because their Arab neighbors protected them.
As a delayed payback, in 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a resident of Kiryat Arba, entered the Mosque and machine-gunned 29 Muslim worshipers dead and wounded 130 before being killed.
Just last month, an Israeli soldier was murdered in Hebron.
I asked Wilder what he and his community would do in the event of a two-state solution in which Hebron becomes part of the State of Palestine. He said that it won’t ever happen!
If it does, and I hope that it will, both Israeli and Palestinian security forces are going to have their hands full dealing with these fanatic religious settlers.
I pray that there will be no loss of life on either side when a two-state agreement is reached, hopefully this year. However, the history of Hebron suggests that such prayers are pipe dreams.