Extreme Reconciliation (Extract)

Can an unlikely dialogue in an unlikely place bring quiet to the Holy city of Hebron?

26josh (photo credit: Noam Arnon)
(photo credit: Noam Arnon)
Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Dressed in a traditional robe, Sheikh Abu Khader Al- Jaberi, leader of one of Hebron's strongest families, hosted the visitors in his ornate living room, decorated with intricately painted moldings, Persian rugs, and plush sofas lining the wall. Below a poster-sized portrait of the sheikh in a Syrian-crafted wood frame hangs a small sword in a scabbard. Refreshments of sweet tea, pita and fruit were served. Some of the guests - local Jewish settler leaders, regarded by Palestinians and many Jews too as provocative and driven by ideological and religious hatred - record the occasion for posterity on their cameras. With its reputation for religious extremism, vigilantism and daily turf wars between Palestinians and Jews, Hebron is a most unlikely place for the two sides to engage in a dialogue. Yet for about two hours on a cold and rainy Sunday morning in February, two bitter adversaries ignored the weight of history and the power of mutual hatred and spoke of the possibility of reconciliation. One of the settlers was Elyakim Ha'etzni, a former far-right Knesset member and a fiery settler ideologue who advocates for a "Greater Israel'' that would encompass, at a minimum, all of the territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. Yet at the meeting he spoke of coexistence. "The Jews that were present said, 'We really want to live together. We have no dream that there should be no Arabs in Hebron. Those that have such a dream wouldn't come to this meeting,'" he tells The Report. Sheikh Jaberi is a scion of Hebron nobility whose clan traces its history in the city back 900 years. He was accompanied at the meeting by Sheikh Abu Akram Abu Sneinah, the head of Hebron's second-largest family. Jaberi's late uncle Mohammed Al-Jaberi had close connections with the Hashemite royal family and served as the city's first mayor under the Israeli occupation. The sheikh lives in an enclave where the Israeli army controls all movement. Considered a moderate when compared to the Hamas majority in the city, he has accused the settlers of stealing his land, but he agreed to host the meeting, he explains to The Report, because he senses that the Jewish settlers want to turn a new page. "I said, 'We've been living together for 60 years and there's bloodshed every day'... I got the impression that they want to change their behavior." Lurking behind the conciliatory words of appeasement, the political and functional agendas are equally urgent for Jews and Palestinians. The leaders of the Jewish community in Hebron - which includes both the approximately 750 Jews who live among the Palestinians within the city of Hebron proper and the more than 6,000 residents of the nearby, Jewish-only town of Kiryat Arba - believe that a rapprochement with one of Hebron's strongest clan leaders bolsters their claim to the right to live in the city. They believe this is especially crucial now since the Israeli government is negotiating a deal with the Palestinians that could, according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's declarations, require the eviction of tens of thousands of West Bank settlers, including from Hebron. Sheikh Jaberi hopes that the new ties can bolster the Palestinians' repeated attempts to convince the Israeli army to open up city roads to Palestinian traffic and remove military checkpoints through the heart of the city. With a population of nearly 170,000 Palestinians, Hebron is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the site where Abraham first purchased real estate in the Promised Land, Jews consider it second only to Jerusalem in its holiness. At the heart of the religious fervor over Hebron is the Cave of the Patriarchs, considered the burial site of most of the Old Testament forefathers and foremothers revered in both Judaism and Islam. Today, Hebron's residents - both Jew and Arab - have a reputation for extremism among Israelis and Palestinians. It is the only city in the West Bank where Jews have settled within Palestinian neighborhoods and intermingle regularly with Palestinians. In Kiryat Arba, there's a memorial to Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn native who gunned down 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. Settler hooligans routinely attack residents of the city, and "Death to Arabs" graffiti in Hebron is a common sight. Soldiers and policemen routinely complain that settler violence is directed at them if they attempt, in any way, to uphold the rights of the Palestinians and do not acceede immediately to the settlers' demands. On the Palestinian side, the city is known as a stronghold of Hamas and its military wing. Islamic politicians won control of the city council as well as seats in the Palestinian legislature. Israel has stepped up offensives against Hamas militants and thrown the politicians in jail. Palestinian militants in Hebron have carried out some of the more infamous attacks on Israelis during the second intifada, including the murder by a sniper of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, while she was seated in her stroller in the courtyard of a Jewish apartment complex in Hebron. In 2002, nine soldiers and three Hebron residents were killed after Jewish worshipers were attacked returning home after Friday night services. To protect the Jewish enclaves from being swallowed by Palestinian autonomy in the city, the Hebron Protocol of 1997 (part of the Oslo Accords) created a precinct controlled by the army, known as "H2" encompassing 19 percent of the city size and tens of thousands of Palestinians. Constant tension from the intermingling has prompted the army to pursue a policy of strict segregation between the populations. Curfews to protect the Israelis have been so strict that hundreds of Palestinian businesses have been shuttered. Hebron's Old City, once bustling with life, stands as an eerie ghost town. The shift toward reconciliation emerged from the unending turf battles around the city. About a year ago, the settlers of Hebron erected a tent synagogue alongside a road connecting the city to Kiryat Arba, where numerous settlers had been murdered during the second intifada. The land belongs to Sheikh Jaberi, who says that complaints to the IDF and the Palestinian Authority have proved futile. A petition to the Supreme Court is pending. But during the High Holidays last fall, Jaberi was approached by a group of radical Israeli peace activists, known as "The Anarchists," who are well-known for joining Palestinians in civil disobedience protests to challenge the West Bank security barrier. "The group said, 'Bring a bulldozer and wreck the synagogue,'" he recounts. But sensing the risk of new religiously-driven bloodshed, Jaberi turned them down. "I knew that if we were to demolish it, then the consequences of such an act would be very negative for our people." As the power of the Palestinian Authority has eroded during the second intifada, large families have stepped into the vacuum to solve problems. The Jaberi clan numbers 15,000 people and maintains its own armed men. The family claims to own land on which Kiryat Arba was established and in the army-enforced buffer zones around the settlement. When asked how Jews and Muslims can possibly co-exist in Hebron, Jaberi cites a verse from Prophet Mohammed in the Koran, which instructs believers to protect a neighbor, regardless of religion or nationality, if the neighbor does no harm. "I would like to apply this," he tells The Report. "If they act properly, it could be a start for us and for them." The decision of the Hebron sheikh to open a dialogue with the settlers surprised and touched settlers like Ha'etzni, who describe it as a "ray of light in all of this darkness." That sentiment set in motion a series of secret meetings and talks aimed at a joint meeting that would serve as a public opportunity to thank the sheikh and bring the fledgling relationship out into the open. The talks were mediated by Yitzhak Magrafta, an Israeli Jewish activist who does humanitarian work in Palestinian Hebron and also maintains good relations with the settlers. "It caused the settlers to realize they have good neighbors," says Magrafta. "Everything starts with respect. If you respect me, we can talk. The sheikh respected a place that's holy for Jews. How can I not respect him back?'' Jews lived in Hebron for centuries, under successive Muslim and Christian rulers. But in August of 1929, an Arab mob killed 67 of their Jewish neighbors - among them women and children - while dozens of others were maimed and tortured. Synagogues were ransacked and Torah scrolls were burned. Subsequently, the British, who held the mandate over Palestine, demanded that all Jews leave the city, in order to maintain public safety and security. The riots of "Tarpat" - an anacronym for the year 5689, which , according to the Jewish calendar, corresponds to 1929 - became seared into the collective memory of Israelis, especially the national religious settler movement. Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.