On October 9, 1968 a thirteen-year-old girl made history, as she squeezed through a narrow hole into the underground chambers of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which the Jews had been forbidden to enter for 700 years under Mamluk, Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule. Jews were only allowed access to the staircase at the southeast of the site, initially only up to the fifth step and later increased to the seventh.
According to many accounts, Michal Arbel, daughter of Yehuda Arbel, then head of the Shin Bet in the Jerusalem District and after the Six Day War also of the West Bank, was the first Jew to enter the historic cave in 700 years.
According to the Machpela site website, however, Chief Rabbi of the Army, Rabbi Shlomo Goren preceded her, entering the gates of the site immediately after Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967.
In any case, Arbel made important discoveries regarding the layout of the cave, when she delved into the depths of the edifice entering the Isaac Hall; legend told that whoever descended into this area would not emerge alive. Arbel's slender frame allowed her to squeeze through the opening into the cave, where she found the tunnel that connects the two apertures in the Isaac Hall.
"On October 9, 1968, my mother asked me if I would agree to climb into a narrow hole that would lead me to a cave," Arbel wrote in her personal account of the event published on the Hebron website. "After I agreed, my mother told me that it was the Cave of the Patriarchs."
Arbel recalls how her father later woke her and bundled her into the car "wrapped like a parcel with a blanket over her head" and they made their way to Hebron from their Jerusalem home. When they arrived they stopped at the police for a while and then continued to the cave. "I got out of the car, wrapped in the blanket, and entered the Muslim mosque. I saw the opening that I would need to fit into." The hole measured 28 centimeters in diameter. Arbel was harnessed with ropes and equipped with a flashlight and matches in order to check the air inside the cave. "They lowered me down onto a pile of paper and money. I found myself in a square room." She describes seeing three tombstones opposite her, "the middle one adorned and taller than the other two." Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are all believed to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Arbel then noticed a small square opening in the wall. Her father released more rope and she went through the opening. On the other side she found herself in a low, narrow corridor with stone walls. At the end of the corridor she discovered a staircase at the top of which was a wall. Her father then lowered a camera for her and she took pictures of the room, the tombstones, the corridor and the stairs. Then, with a paper and pencil she sketched a diagram of the location and took careful measurements. Following Arbel's adventure, her father passed along her findings to then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
According to an interview that Arbel gave to Haaretz
in 1996, Dayan had told her father that he was looking for a way to divide the cave in order to prevent a religious war; so that Jews could enter from below and pray there, and Muslims could enter and pray on top.
Earlier in the day in October 1967, an unknown perpetrator threw a hand grenade at the stairway leading to the tomb, injuring some 47 Israelis, eight seriously. According to Arbel's interview with Haaretz
, this incident made her excursion possible as Hebron was placed under curfew and the mosque was closed. According to several accounts, the trigger of the attack was a decision to authorize special services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which led to Muslim protest.
The next people to venture into the caves were a group of settlers from Hebron in 1981 who managed to sneak past the Wakf guards during slihot
(penitential prayers.) Following their excursion, former director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Seev Jevin entered the passage and discovered the square stone in the round chamber that concealed the cave entrance.
In 1996, as Dayan had planned, an agreement was made between the Israelis and Palestinians over the division of the Cave of the Patriarchs, in the format of the Wye River Accords. According to the agreement, the Wakf Muslim religious trust controls 81 percent of the building, and Jews are not permitted to visit the Cenotaphs of Isaac or Rebecca, aside from during 10 Jewish holy days of the year. Tourists are permitted to enter the site, however tensions remain volatile between Muslims and Jews, both surrounding the historic building and in the wider city of Hebron, where the small community of settlers living there regularly clash with their Palestinian neighbors.