President Reuven Rivlin urged Israelis and Palestinians in Hebron to live together peacefully when he visited the West Bank city that is often a flash point for violence between the two populations.
“True, it is difficult to imagine the possibility of dialogue in Hebron,” Rivlin said. “However, we can and should try.”
“Such actions do not hurt or hinder our right to Hebron, a right that was bought during the days of the patriarchs, and stands strong to this day,” he said.
His visit marked the first time that a president had visited the city in 17 years. Many Israeli leaders have spoken of the significance of the city, which since biblical times has almost always had a Jewish community, but few have actually visited it while in office.
The last such visit occurred in 1998, when then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was serving his first term as premier, and president Ezer Weizmann paid a condolence call to the family of Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, who was murdered by terrorists.
Rivlin issued his words at a ceremony to celebrate the end of a renovation project at the Hebron Heritage Museum in the Beit Hadassah apartment complex.
“Hebron is a split city, a difficult city, a city divided and pieced together,” Rivlin said.
“We do not need to pretend with you who live here. The political reality has created difficult situations in Hebron, at times almost surreal, and yet it seems that life is stronger [here] than anything else.”
As a Likud politician, Rivlin frequently came to Hebron, but his appearance there as president to deliver a short address at a formal event was highly unusual.
Hebron Jewish community spokesman David Wilder said the visit “is a major event” that has “major significance.”
He added, “It’s another stone of recognition of what Hebron was in the past, what it is today and what it should be in the future as part of the State of Israel.”
While Jewish history in Hebron dates back to the Bible, when Abraham purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Palestinians hold that the city in its entirety should be part of its future state. The Palestinians and much of the international community view Israel’s presence in the city as an act of occupation.
The city itself is already divided. Large portions of it are under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and a small section, around the Cave of the Patriarchs, is under Israeli control.
Rivlin’s visit comes at a time when the international community and the Palestinians have ratcheted up their rhetoric against any Israeli presence in the West Bank.
Israel Radio quoted Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki as saying that the PA intended to formally join the International Criminal Court on April 1 and immediately ask the court to investigate Israel’s settlement policy.
But Rivlin on Wednesday said that Jewish ties to Hebron were beyond dispute.
“Even those who differ in their views regarding the renewed Jewish settlement in Hebron cannot, and should not, deny the deep cultural and historic connection of the people of Israel to the city,” Rivlin said.
These ties were personal, said Rivlin. His mother’s family had worked and lived in the city before the Arab massacre of 67 Hebron Jews in 1929 destroyed the community and caused its members to flee.
It was not just his family, but the entire nation, whose history dates back to Hebron, Rivlin said.
Earlier in the day the president visited the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba.
The left-wing Meretz Party and the non-governmental group Peace Now called on Rivlin not visit Hebron and Kiryat Arba. Rivlin said in response that it was important in a democracy to honor all different segments of society.
He had been asked by members of the Right, he said, not to make an appearance at the upcoming Haaretz “Israeli Democracy Conference” because the New Israel Fun is participating in that event.
“We are allowed to disagree, but we cannot be disrespectful. Not on the Right, nor on the Left. Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel alike deserve respect.
“I did not cancel my visit to Hebron as I would never cancel my participation at Haaretz’s conference on democracy,” Rivlin said.
The president spoke in a tent that was placed on the street right outside Beit Hadassah. Prior to the ceremony, a reception was held on the street – which was closed to traffic – with catered food, china plates and wineglasses.
A number of left-wing activists managed to enter the reception area, wearing Meretz T-shirts, as well as activists from NGO Breaking the Silence. They stood up next to the food tables and held up signs against Rivlin’s visit.
Police immediately forced them to leave. A brief scuffle broke out between the activists, police and some attendees, which included loud shouting matches.
“I can be anywhere that setters are,” yelled one activist, who argued that they had a right to attend the event as peaceful protesters.
Another activist said he had more rights than many of the people there, because as a soldier he had served in Hebron.
“We came here to say that Hebron is not the heart of consensus, but the heart of the occupation. Opening a visitors center in the middle of territory that is occupied is an investment for a small group of extremist settlers, instead of using those funds in Israel for welfare and education,” said another demonstrator.
She added, “The Palestinians who live here and the nation of Israel are being held hostage by a small group of settlers. I am sure that Abraham would turn over in his grave if he saw what is happening here.”