The killers of Yatta

While the small village outside Hebron has produced four people who have attacked and murdered Israelis, a surprising Jewish connection is also found.

A man and woman comfort each other following the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv last week (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man and woman comfort each other following the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv last week
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Walking down the main street near “al-Garage,” the heart of Yatta, it seems like a normal, slow-paced day in the dust-specked town of 64,000.
A few storefronts stand shuttered for Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday of fasting.
But it’s been anything but normal since news emerged that last month’s Tel Aviv assailants, Khaled and Muhammad Makhamra, hailed from Yatta. Their shooting spree, at a café in the high-end Sarona Market, left four Israelis dead.
With broadcast anchors interviewing the attackers’ family, soldiers closing roads for days, and officers bulldozing houses, residents of Yatta are reeling from the recent developments and are preparing for further conflict.
“The youth of our city are desperate and sick of Israel’s occupation and its closure [of movement] over the Palestinians,” said Jamal Baha’is, deputy mayor of Yatta, adding that the past week reminded him of the second intifada and its daily violence.
The Makhamra cousins aren’t the only assailants to have roots in the town.
Others include 15-year-old Morad Bader Abdullah Adais, who stabbed and killed a mother of four in her home in the settlement of Otniel in January. Last month, the army bulldozed Adais’s two-story family home on the outskirts of town (The Yatta municipality is renting an apartment for the Adais family, Baha’is said.) And 18-year-old Muhammad Tarada, who stabbed and wounded four Israelis in Kiryat Gat in November – including a 13-year-old girl – came from the village of Tuffah, next to Yatta.
In light of the four attacks, it is possible that a trend has emerged among Yatta’s youth. Yet the deputy mayor thinks it is premature to identify the phenomenon.
“If you look at the past few months,” or at the number of attackers coming from the Yatta area, “and you contrast it to Jenin a decade ago, Yatta has just a small fraction of the fighters among the population,” Baha’is said.
“We don’t know if there will be further attacks,” Baha’is added.
Other locals speculated that the disproportionate number of attackers coming from Yatta might be attributed to its topography.
“Yatta is surrounded by settlements in all directions,” said Azzam Nawarjja, a Yatta resident who splits his time here and in the Palestinian village of Sussiya to the south. “The settlements are choking the air we breathe.”
To the west of Yatta sits Otniel and to its south is Jewish Sussiya, a settlement that has been trying to expand for three decades and in the process displace Palestinians who claim to work the land.
Other nearby settlements and outposts include Carmel, Maon, Beit Hagai and Mitzpe Yair.
Aftermath of the Tel Aviv attack
Hours after the Tel Aviv terrorist attack, the IDF announced a closure around Yatta, which was lifted afterward.
For almost a week, no Palestinian could enter or exit as army bulldozers moved mounds of dirt and rock onto the main paved road.
To circumvent the closure, cars had to wind through twisting and rocky back roads, bumping along the way in a fit of nausea. A routine 15-minute trek to Hebron took more than two hours.
In response to last month's attack, the government revoked 83,000 permits for Palestinians to work or visit Israel during Ramadan. Of that number, a few thousand workers live in Yatta, said Nasser Raba’e, director of the Yatta municipality.
Almost 75 percent of Yatta’s workers are part of the Israeli labor market, according to a 2009 study of the town by the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem.
Most of them work in construction in Israel. Locally, there is a stone quarry that employs hundreds.
And on the outskirts of Yatta in Beit Amra – under Israeli jurisdiction as Area C of the West Bank – soldiers padlocked the home of the Na’amin family. The army said that the construction was illegal since it was done without a permit.
The house had been there for four months, said Nasser Nawarjja, a local B’Tselem staffer. Other anticipated demolitions include both Makhamara homes and the Tarada family house.
Last month, Muhammad Makhamra’s father, Ahmed, 50, recounted that a hundred soldiers from the army and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) raided the house at 3:30 a.m. A video released by the IDF shows soldiers walking through and mapping the home of one of the gunmen. The video took place between June 8 and June 9, hours after the Tel Aviv attack.
“They searched the place and measured its height,” Ahmed said, adding that he expected the engineering corps unit to bulldoze the house in Raga, a neighborhood one kilometer north from the center of Yatta. “Why else would they measure the house?” Khaled Makhamra’s father, Mussa, also said last week that he was worried about the army demolishing his home.
Was there a Jewish Yatta?
When asked about Jewish or Christian historical connections to the town of Yatta, the deputy mayor paused.
The prophet Zechariah was born here, Baha’is said. The Virgin Mary visited the town. But aside from biblical mythology, no further evidence links Yatta to either faith tradition, he claimed.
“We don’t acknowledge the Jewish people and their history in Israel,” Baha’is said.
Local historian and retired teacher, Youssef Abu-Aram, disagreed slightly.
“Maybe there was a community of Jews here a couple of hundred years ago,” Abu-Aram said. “Merchants would pass through.”
Their reluctance to acknowledge Jewish historical and cultural ties may be due to the fear that Israel uses archeology in order to legitimize its land development.
“If Israel knew that we had a Jewish history or archeological site, they would’ve built a settlement in Yatta already,” said Abu-Aram.
Abu-Aram did recognize a “Jewish connection” to the biblical town of Zif, north of Yatta.
A look at the archives
Back in the Canaanite era, the town was called “Yuta,” meaning “flat and curved.” In the Book of Joshua, Yuta is mentioned as a city for the Levite priests. And during the Roman era, the town acquired the name of Letaem.
A Roman historian, Eusebius, wrote in the fourth century that Yuta was a “large village of Jews” south of Beit Guvrin. There is little archeological evidence for Eusebius’s assertion, says Oxford academic Martin Goodman in his book Jews in a Graeco-Roman World. Yet Goodman notes that a mixed population of Jews, Christians and pagans may have resided here.
The town’s main expansion occurred during Ottoman rule. That is when Western adventurers first documented their voyages to the town and in the mid-19th century, a few identified Yatta as related to the biblical town of Juttah.
In 1931, a Jewish cemetery from the Roman era was discovered outside the town, according to the Israel Land and Nature journal. And in 1986, archeologists Zvi Ilan and David Amit claim to have found a lintel engraved with a menorah while conducting a survey nearby.
On an idiosyncratic and speculative note, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of Israel, claimed that a number of Yatta hamulas (extended families) descended from Jews.
A January 2009 article in The Times of London raises questions about Ben-Zvi’s theory. A handful of Yatta residents tell stories about their alleged Jewish roots, despite the simmering nationalist conflict.
As the Times reported: Avi, a resident of Yatta, said “his grandparents told him that the family had moved to Yatta centuries before from the Jewish kingdom of Khaibar in the south-western Arabian Peninsula.” The Jews of Khaibar were eventually expelled by Caliph Umar.
“I knew my grandparents came from Khaibar, and they told me that they became Muslims. We are Muslims now,” Avi added.