Jews visiting Hebron, April 6, 2015.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Arieh Konikov stood on the steps leading up to the park below the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, handing out fliers.
“We support a state founded on Jewish values and Torah,” explained Konikov, who is from Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion. He was volunteering to give out information about the Derech Chaim Movement, which supports a Torah-based public policy. It was one of dozens of organizations and businesses with representatives in Hebron on Monday for a massive free music festival and event calendar.
Downtown Hebron’s Jewish community, which usually consists of around 1,000 people and is located inside the large Palestinian city, was the site of a massive pilgrimage of Jews and other tourists from all over the world Monday. The occasion was Hol Hamoed, which is a holiday for some in Israel.
Cars were cordoned off in several parking lots around Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement on the periphery of the city, and lines of people waited in the hot sun for bumper-to-bumper buses to take them the five-minute ride to a parking lot near the Cave of the Patriarchs. Police kept civilian cars out of the downtown area.
Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld noted that the area had been secured beforehand with coordination with the IDF.
“No incidents were reported and the large deployment of the police, mainly from the Border Police, assisted thousands who visited Hebron,” he said.
The impetus for many who came was a chance to visit sections of the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The Herodian-era structure – which according to Jewish tradition is built atop the tombs of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah – is usually divided into a Jewish section and a larger Muslim section that makes up the Ibrahim Mosque.
“It is a tradition in Judaism to visit the places that represent the roots of our people,” explained Shira Peer and her husband, who had come from Jerusalem. They have been coming for years and noted that there were less visitors than in the past.
Near the entrance to the site, visitors were deluged with CD salesmen, men selling shirts with an image of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and representatives of various religious movements and yeshivot.
Some visitors had set up tents in the grass. Children jumped on a giant bouncy castle, and music – which seemed oddly loud and out of place for the holy site – blared, making it difficult to hear those nearby.
Inside the site the usual separation of the sexes seemed to have been ignored as women peered into a small niche leading to where the holy graves are and others milled about or prayed the Afternoon Prayer.
Some had never been to the site before and many had come from secular bastions on the coastal plain. Others were regular visitors. A towering man from Britain scoffed at the “freezing cold and rain” back home and boasted he had been more than 20 times to the site.
Tour buses had arrived from various cities. A group of Ethiopian Jews from Beersheba, with several kessim, or Ethiopian rabbis, resplendent in white robes and unique head coverings, had come. A soldier, catching a break from a day in the sweltering heat, flirted with a girl from Kiryat Malachi. “It’s been a quiet today, no troubles,” he said, cradling his Tavor rifle.
Less visitors had made their way along Al-Shuhada Street, which meanders from the downtown area to another Jewish neighborhood on the hill called Tel Rumeida. A Christian tour group, accompanied by Palestinian Catholic scouts, had come through from Muslim Hebron, and their guide was explaining that the street was a point of contention, with Arabs restricted from using some streets and their shops closed. A sign put up by the community of Hebron noted: “These stores were closed by the IDF for security reasons.”
Two Palestinian university students from Hebron said that although they were amazed to see so many Jewish tourists, it upset them to see the division in the city and the massive Israeli security, which made them nervous to walk the streets.
“It is a bittersweet visit. Muslims are prohibited this week from going to the mosque. I feel sad for the people who had to leave their homes when settlers came here. But we don’t have a problem with Jews in general, and my grandfather had many Jewish friends in the old days,” said Haya A., who studies literature.
Back near the holy site, a makeshift grill had been set up to feed hundreds for a nominal fee. The boss of the grill, a burly, bearded man, said he had been doing this for 10 years.
“It looks like a lot of people, but we used to have many, many more in years past.”