Hebron: The conflict in a nutshell

Ever since the Six Day War enabled the return of Jews to this legendary city, it has become one of the most prominent symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Soldiers overlook the Hebron region in 2014 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Soldiers overlook the Hebron region in 2014
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
The name Hebron in both Hebrew and Arabic – Hevron and al-Khalil – is derived from the root meaning “friend.” The city, holy to both Jews and Muslims, is believed to be the burial place of some of Judaism and Islam’s most consequential patriarchs and matriarchs.
Nestled in the hills some 30 kilometers south of Jerusalem, Hebron was once a model of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but is now typified by a very strained and often violent relationship between its Israeli and Palestinian residents.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews and Arabs lived side by side in Hebron, sharing shops, hospitals, and holy sites. However, with the rise of increased Jewish Zionist immigration to Palestine and the growth of Arab nationalism and incitement, growing tensions culminated in the massacre of 67 Jews in 1929, effectively ending the Jewish presence in Hebron.
The event was so destabilizing to Jewish-Arab relations that historian Hillel Cohen called it “year zero of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” despite Arab violent opposition to Zionism even before the British Mandate.
WHEN JEWS returned, under the protection of the IDF and the State of Israel, to the city in the decades succeeding the 1967 Six Day War, the Palestinian population viewed them hostile occupiers.
While succeeding governments did not actively promote Jewish settlement in the city, they acquiesced to the uncompromising settlers, who viewed their mission in messianic terms.
In 1994 Jewish resident Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and following riots, the IDF closed Shuhada Street, the heart of the city’s market life, to Palestinians.
Palestinians have since then experienced ever-expanding restrictions on movement around Jewish settlements.
After the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the IDF further limited movement for Palestinians, setting up additional checkpoints and closing a number of roads to vehicular traffic.
Today, the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in Hebron, where fewer than 1,000 Jewish residents are surrounded by some 200,000 Palestinians, generating friction that often results in well-documented clashes.
While other areas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have evolved in the 50 years since 1967, inter-community relations in Hebron have remained nearly frozen since the 1980s and friendship remains elusive.
Since 1997 the city has been divided into separate communities: the Palestinian-controlled H1 area, which comprises around 80% of the city, and the Israeli-controlled H2 neighborhood.
Conflict typically arises in the small sliver of the city where Jewish settlers brush up against Palestinian residents, and Muslim and Jewish worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs are separated by a metal barrier.
In the past two years alone, the areas around Jewish settlements have seen violent confrontations among settlers, the IDF, and Palestinians. Some Palestinians have stabbed soldiers and often throw rocks at them, while some settlers have assaulted their neighbors and taunt them from behind IDF guards.
A 4,000-page book: The Jewish perspective
Twelve-year-old Noam Arnon first stepped foot in Hebron a few months after the IDF captured the city in June 1967. His family came to see the city’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, where, the Bible relates, Abraham purchased the first Jewish plot of land for a burial place.
“Arise and traverse the land, in its length and in its breadth, for to you I shall give it,” God promises Abraham (Genesis 13:17).
Young Arnon was inspired by the messianic fever sweeping up swaths of Israeli society that came with the capture of Judaism’s most holy sites in 1967.
Beit Hadassah, one of the best known symbols of the Jewish settlement in the city, in 2015 during a visit by President Reuven Rivlin. (MARK NEYMAN / GPO)Beit Hadassah, one of the best known symbols of the Jewish settlement in the city, in 2015 during a visit by President Reuven Rivlin. (MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
“The sky is the limit or the sky was not even the limit,” he says from his booklined Hebron office Nine years later, a 22-year-old Arnon was knee deep in trash and animal feces, digging out Hebron’s 16th-century Avraham Avinu (Patriarch Abraham) Synagogue. “It was like redeeming one of the most important sites of Jewish history,” he relates. “The Abraham synagogue in the city of Abraham. What could be more than this? “There was a very active market here [the Arab central market near Shuhada Street], but then beyond the market you could see a field of waste, dirt, toilets, stinking facilities and animals.”
Today, he is Hebron’s official spokesman and a resident for more than 30 years, wistfully telling his story over the remains of his morning coffee.
During the synagogue’s excavation, Arnon contracted jaundice from contact with animal excrement at the site and was hospitalized in Kfar Saba. In the hospital, a friend put him in contact with his future wife. “I was far away in Hebron and there were no phones and no way to contact me. In the hospital she came to visit me,” he says with a smile, “So in the digging I found a synagogue and my wife.”
ARNON’S LIFE in Hebron, and that of the approximately 1,000 Jews who live there under IDF protection, was facilitated by a leader of the movement to reestablish Jewish life in the West Bank, Rabbi Moshe Levinger (who died in 2015). The famous rabbi followed the ideological path of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who sought to establish Jewish sovereignty over the entire biblical Land of Israel, a doctrine he was willing to implement by force. Levinger himself killed Palestinian shopkeeper Kayed Hassan Salah in 1988 and served three months of a five-month prison sentence after accepting a self-defense plea deal.
Noam Arnon, Hebron Jewish community spokesman (ELIYAHU KAMISHER) Noam Arnon, Hebron Jewish community spokesman (ELIYAHU KAMISHER)
On April 4, 1968 a group of Jews led by Levinger posing as Swiss tourists checked in at the Arab-owned Hebron Park Hotel. The next day, after koshering the kitchen, the group announced that they were staying put. Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered their evacuation, but compromised with a deal: they were resettled in a nearby military base, which eventually became the Kiryat Arba settlement, a suburb of the city of Hebron, now numbering over 7,000 Israelis.
Settling in the historic Jewish Quarter of Hebron was advanced by Levinger’s wife, Miriam (originally from Brooklyn), who in 1979 along with nine other women and 40 children from Kiryat Arba climbed through a window and settled themselves in Beit Hadassah, a late-19th-century clinic built by North African Jews. After a Palestinian threw a grenade in 1980 and murdered six yeshiva students in front of Beit Hadassah, the government recognized the renewed Jewish presence in Hebron.
Now Miriam Levinger, a Hebron resident of nearly 40 years, can be seen in a number of online videos arguing with Palestinians and left-wing activists or Christian tourists. “Pardon me! I’m living here. I know what goes on here!” she yells at one activist in a 2007 video.
“And all the generations of Jewish history, the Christians murdered the Jews because they refused to receive the Christian Messiah!” she yells as if reliving the history before her eyes, “Genocide! Genocide! Genocide!” Arnon was one of the settlers living with his wife in Kiryat Arba eagerly waiting for the day he could move to the historic Jewish Quarter of Hebron. In 1985, he fulfilled his dream and moved into the same apartment in Beit Hadassah that he occupies today.
OVER THE past 50 years, since Israel captured the West Bank and Jews began repopulating Hebron’s Old City, Jewish residents have come to view the settlement as only a blip in the city’s history.
Their sense of history and role in it spans the millennia before and years after the 1967 war. Arnon compares the history to a 4,000 page book. “We write our page in our generation,” he says, “and it’s so important that in our page there is no story of abandoning Hebron, but it is a story of returning to Hebron.”
For today’s Jewish settlers of Hebron, their page arguably begins in 1929, when 67 Jews were murdered in Arab riots following simmering Arab-Zionist tensions stoked by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, who accused Jews of plotting to take over al-Aksa Mosque and build a third Jewish Temple in its place. The Jewish survivors were evacuated, effectively ending the Jewish presence in Hebron.
The massacre remains a central part of the Jewish narrative to this very day.
Fresh on the heels of expulsion, the Jews have returned – this time backed by an army and without any intentions to move an inch. However, the same army that now protects them could also be the one that would uproot them in a potential peace agreement, a possibility Arnon is aware of.
“The State of Israel at this time is at a junction,” he argues The state, he explains, has to make up its mind between “denying connection to the land, denying connection to Jewish history, or reunification with the Jewish homeland with Jewish history.”
TZIPI SCHLISSEL has lived in Hebron since 2001 and manages the museum of the Jewish community, which is part of Beit Hadassah. Her grandmother was rescued by an Arab family during the 1929 massacre. Her father was stabbed to death in 1998 by a Palestinian man in Hebron.
Israeli police arrest Rabbi Moshe Levinger (center) for inciting violence against the government, 1984 (REUTERS) Israeli police arrest Rabbi Moshe Levinger (center) for inciting violence against the government, 1984 (REUTERS)
“One of them saved my family,” Schlissel tells me, while sitting in the museum’s coffee shop. But she still views the events of 1929 as a harbinger of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the city today. She vividly recounts the massacre daily to groups and individuals as the museum tour guide.
“Many people work alongside us, as in 1929, and we think they are nice and good people… And one day they will hear the incitement in the mosque and they will come and kill us?” she asks.
“I personally have a psychological barrier to have any connection with them,” she states, “because you never know, even though in my mind I know there are all kinds of Arabs.”
Nevertheless, advocates of the Hebron settlers are eager to portray the Jewish community’s relations with their Palestinian neighbors as cordial, despite the heavy IDF presence necessary to prevent violence.
The Jewish Community of Hebron’s international spokesman Yishai Fleisher points out that a Palestinian factory furnished the Jewish community with extra mattresses for the influx of visitors who came for Passover.
‘Living in a ghetto’
The security precautions do lead to an isolated life in the five cordoned-off Jewish neighborhoods, clustered around a single street in the city. Children are often accompanied to one of the community’s three kindergartens by armed guards.
What does exist between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in Hebron is a peculiar tug-of-war played out by civil rights activists armed with video cameras, kids with rocks, armed rabbis and teenage soldiers. All of them butt heads near the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people or the Muslim faith, depending on whom you quote.
On a walk from the Avraham Avinu neighborhood to the Tomb of the Patriarchs with Fleisher, we pass a few soldiers eating chips as a Palestinian child zooms by on a bicycle. “Shalom!” he yells at the soldiers mockingly.
Earlier that day private security officers responded to Palestinian rock throwers. “Arab shepherds throw rocks at their sheep to steer them,” said Eliyahu, a Hebron resident and security guard, “They are trying to do the same thing with the Jews.”
Fleisher then takes me to one of his “Arab friends,” Muhammad al- Mohtaseb, a 26-year-old Palestinian whose shop is located near the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
“Sorry for not covering my kippa,” Fleisher states. “I usually wear a hat so it doesn’t make him feel uncomfortable being seen with me,” he says.
“No, it’s not the kippa that makes me uncomfortable,” says Mohtaseb, correcting him. “What disturbs me is you standing with your pistol.”
THEIR RELATIONSHIP has an unusual dynamic, that can flourish only in the confines of an IDF-administered space, where Mohtaseb makes his living selling souvenirs to tourists. “He makes money off of us,” Fleisher says, as Mohtaseb responds with a laugh.
When asked what he thinks of the settlers of Hebron, Mohtaseb replies with one word, “aggressive,” to which Fleisher responds with Jabotinskyan rhetoric, “If he thinks my people are aggressive that’s not a bad thing.”
In an earlier conversation, Fleisher argued that Palestinians would resign themselves to Israeli control only if they understand that the Jewish population does not plan on moving. “Smash bad guys and give to the good guys,” he stated, with two outstretched fists.
It is the settlers’ hope that one day the entire city of Hebron will be treated as an “open market” where Jews will be able to freely buy property in the Palestinian neighborhoods.
Despite their initial successes in settling the Jewish Quarter, the Jewish community in Hebron remains cramped in a handful of buildings, constituting only some 3% of the city. The Jewish population has hardly grown since the 1980s and is surrounded by more than 200,000 Palestinians. Schlissel knows her 11 children will be unable to rent an apartment there once they get married.
While the Jewish settlers of Hebron have been able to make themselves a permanent fixture of Hebron, they have not been able to bring about significant change in Israeli policy toward the city.
At present the 85 families rent apartments for between NIS 1,000 and NIS 2,000 a month. Shlomo, the city’s handyman, preforms repairs. There are two parks and two ambulances, but no hospital, so there are frequent incursions of emergency medical responders.
Local Jewish businesses include a honey producer and a maker of tefillin.
“We are in a ghetto,” states Arnon, “While the Arabs build thousands of houses, the Jews speak about one. They don’t build it but they talk about it.”
Of the approximately 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Hebron settlers are perceived as among the most hardline.
In contrast to many other settlements in the West Bank, the daily lives of the Jewish residents of Hebron’s are very much entangled with the conflict and violence. There is no escaping the barbed wire that surrounds Jewish buildings or the 12 IDF checkpoints.
WHILE MANY Israelis sympathize with the Jewish connection to Hebron, these settlers still remain on the fringes of Israeli society. One of the most famous Jewish Hebronites is Baruch Marzel, a leading extreme-right activist who regularly appears in the Hebrew media opposing gay rights and intermarriage.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though right-wing, has not brought change in favor of the Jewish population.
He actually implemented Hebron’s division in 1997, ceding some 80% of the city to the Palestinian Authority.
“We inherited a difficult reality,” Netanyahu said in a Knesset speech about implementing Hebron’s division.
According to Arnon, the settlers in the city have “a very serious problem of a lack of budget and a lack of understanding.”
Fleisher and Arnon are trying to change that. For every criticism, they have a rebuttal, and they eloquently advocate Hebron’s history with an evident passion for its Jewish past. Arnon is an expert on the Jewish history of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He fights tooth and nail against giving back any Israeli- controlled land to a future Palestinian state.
Fleisher, who lives in east Jerusalem, was one of the first people to be married in Hebron during the second intifada in 2002. “We wanted to help rekindle the tradition,” he says.
Part of the local Jewish community’s efforts in that direction is the attempt to turn the conflict-ridden area into a tourist attraction. The Beit Hadassah museum, for example, tells the settlers’ version of history, in which the 1994 Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein is conspicuously missing. There is also an interactive “4D Touching Eternity” movie, equipped with vibrating seats, that could easily fit in at a Disney theme park.
It’s unclear how successful these attempts are at persuasion, or at least communication of a narrative. One thing that is clear is that the activists armed with video cameras to record the settlers and other events in Hebron do not show them in a positive light.
And yet, the Jewish settlers of Hebron are hard at work, seeking to ensure their page in history is written as they would like.
“Hebron is on the map and it’s a tourist attraction as well,” Fleisher said at a 2017 tourism expo in Tel Aviv. “And you know what, if you are concerned with the politics and the danger, that itself is an attraction.”
IDF soldiers patrol after clashes with Hebron Jews seeking to thwart evacuation from the city’s wholesale market in 2006 (AVI OHAYON/GPO) IDF soldiers patrol after clashes with Hebron Jews seeking to thwart evacuation from the city’s wholesale market in 2006 (AVI OHAYON/GPO)
'A microcosm of the occupation’: The Palestinian perspective
Some two weeks after the Six Day War, the strong and tall Adel Sharabati held his newborn nephew, Hisham, high as he swam across the Jordan River in the dark of night. Adel, Hisham, and five other members of the Sharabati family were determined to return to their homes in the West Bank. One by one they crossed the river.
Less than two weeks before, Miysar Sharabati, who was on the verge of giving birth, and members of her immediate family fled to Jordan as war broke out between Israel and the surrounding Arab states.
The family, soaking wet and exhausted, slowly approached a nearby road and asked passing cars to give them a ride to Bethlehem, where Hisham’s father, who had remained in the West Bank during the war, was awaiting their arrival. A taxi driver agreed to bring them to the southern West Bank town.
With the family reunited, Hisham and his parents then returned to their home near Hebron’s Old City.
“I remember my uncle always telling me that he’s the one responsible for bringing me back to Palestine,” the now 50-year-old Hisham Sharabati says on an April morning in the lobby of a newly renovated hotel, blocks away from where he grew up.
Sharabati, sipping on a small cup of coffee, is animated as he recalls the history of his city. “Hebron is the microcosm of the occupation. Everything that happens under occupation – settlements, curfews, raids, walls, checkpoints, and the rest – exists here,” he says.
Standing on the rooftop of the hotel, which Sharabati supervises part-time, he points to Beit Hadassah in the heart of Hebron.
“I remember the day the settlers moved into Beit Hadassah. I never thought that they would take over the building and still be here today,” he says. “I saw them and didn’t know what to make of them.”
He then turns his attention to the Tel Rumeida checkpoint and Shuhada Street.
“Palestinians who live in that area can’t drive their cars there. The occupation has made their lives miserable,” he remarks.
While Sharabati is clearly disappointed with the current situation in Hebron, he noted that better days existed in the city.
“My grandfather said that there were good relations between the Jews and the Palestinians,” he says. “He himself used to turn off the lights for his Jewish neighbors on Shabbat.”
Jews and Muslims have lived in Hebron for centuries. The relations between the two peoples were largely friendly, but, as more Jews immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine, tensions rose.
Following the 1929 massacre, the British evacuated the surviving Jewish community.
Some attempted to return in 1931, but another wave of riots in 1936 against Jews forced them to leave once again.
Life and curfews
Sharabati grew up in a large, fourroom house with a courtyard next to the Ali Baka Mosque. His grandparents mainly raised him, as his father had died when he was two years old and his mother had remarried and moved to her new husband’s place.
It was in this house that Sharabati had his first memorable encounters with Israeli soldiers.
“I saw them around town with their red berets, carrying heavy sticks with them,” he says. “When I walked to school in Bab al-Zawiya, they stood nearby. I was afraid of them.”
Near Sharabati’s school, clashes between soldiers and local residents sometimes broke out, making it difficult for him and his peers to study.
“When the army fired tear gas in front of the school, our teachers would instruct us to return home,” Sharabati says. “We exited through the back of the school and would walk through the alleyways to return home.”
As clashes between soldiers and local Palestinians ensued, curfews were frequently declared. The first major curfew that Sharabati experienced took place in the late 1970s, after Israel allowed settlers to place Jewish religious texts on shelves in the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Local Palestinians were furious with the development, believing it was aimed at taking over the site, and destroyed the holy texts. The army responded immediately by ordering Palestinians to remain in their homes.
“The army came around with loudspeakers yelling in Arabic, ‘Families of Hebron, a curfew has been imposed,’” Sharabati recounts. “I watched the settlers walk over the to the Tel Rumeida area to bury the books in jars.”
Curfews meant that Sharabati and his family had to stay indoors except for a couple of hours each day, during which the IDF permitted Hebronite Palestinians to purchase groceries and other supplies. But while curfews heavily limited Palestinian activity, Sharabati, who was a young boy at the time, ironically enjoyed many of them.
“It was an opportunity for me to spend time with my family. We would all gather on the rooftop and watch what was happening,” he says. “I have many great memories from the times we were under curfew.”
NONETHELESS, NOT all curfews were as glorious and, in some cases, they lasted much longer. After a local Palestinian attacked settlers while they were praying near Beit Hadassah in May 1980, slaying six Jews, a curfew was imposed for several weeks.
A procession to bury the remains of holy texts and objects destroyed by an Arab mob in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1976 (SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)A procession to bury the remains of holy texts and objects destroyed by an Arab mob in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1976 (SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)
“It was the longest and worst curfew.
We could go out only every couple of days to purchase supplies,” Sharabati says.
Today Sharabati is a well-known activist in the Hebron area. As he walks around the city, locals call out to him and wave, while others shake his hand.
The middle-aged activist serves as a leader of the Hebron Defense Committee, a non-violent, anti-Israeli military rule protest group. The HDC organizes events almost every week, ranging from protests to sit-ins.
Recently, it organized events in support of hunger-striking Palestinian security prisoners. Sharabati participated in one event, when he and a number of other activists chained their hands together and marched around Hebron.
He also works for the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq, for which he collects testimonies from local Palestinians about alleged Israeli and PA human rights violations. “Sometimes we document more violations by the PA and sometimes more by Israel. It depends on the period,” Sharabati says of his work.
While his life is seemingly subsumed by politics today, he first became interested in political activism in the 1980s, after Israel had appointed Palestinians to village councils to replace local, nationalist- oriented municipalities. The village councils, which cooperated with the IDF, offended Sharabati, who saw them as collaborators with Israel.
“Their main office was across the street from my school. I thought that they had given up on the Palestinian issue,” he remarks. “I wanted to do something to change the situation, so I became a troublemaker and started to participate in politics and protests.”
He slowly became more involved in activism and started regularly participating in protests and demonstrations.
With the advent of the first intifada in 1987, he felt the momentum was on the Palestinian side.
“We were a united movement,” he says. “When we called for a general strike, everyone complied. Then the Israelis tried to force us to open our shops and started ripping open the doors of shops. The people responded in solidarity – the blacksmiths offered to repair damaged doors for free.”
The first intifada was a largely popular uprising that began in 1987 after an IDF vehicle collided with a car in Gaza, killing four Palestinians. The incident set off protests in the Jabalya refugee camp, which subsequently spread to other parts of Gaza and the West Bank.
The intifada made a late arrival in Hebron, but when the uprising reached the city, general strikes, boycotts of IDF institutions, and throwing rocks and firebombs at soldiers became commonplace.
“We quickly started to see results. All the Palestinians who were working for the Israelis in the municipalities and police stations resigned from their jobs,” Sharabati says. “We started to create our own popular committees to provide services to the people.”
In Hebron, the committees started to provide classes, with high-school students teaching elementary-school pupils.
As the intifada grew and the PLO started to take it over, Sharabati began to believe that the end of Israel’s military rule might be imminent.
“I thought the end of the occupation and our independence were around the corner,” he says. “I was in good spirits and had high expectations.”
Throughout the uprising, the US had made numerous attempts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together to discuss achieving a peace accord, but ultimately made little progress. However, following the Gulf War in 1991, the US finally convinced the parties, including Israeli and Palestinian representatives, to meet in Madrid.
Sharabati’s positive outlook led him to believe the Madrid conference was an opportunity to move in the direction of achieving independence.
“I protested in Hebron, but this time I gave olive branches to soldiers. I told them that I wanted peace. I supported the Oslo process.”
However, his optimism gradually faded as the peace process made slow progress and violence took hold of Hebron’s streets.
Hisham Sharabati, Hebron Palestinian activist (ADAM RASGON) Hisham Sharabati, Hebron Palestinian activist (ADAM RASGON)
ON PURIM 1994, Baruch Goldstein shot and killed 29 worshipers and wounded 125 in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, shaking the city’s Palestinian population. The deadly incident immediately set off protests and clashes between Palestinians and the IDF in the areas near the Tomb of the Patriarchs and around the old city. Former president Ezer Weizman, who called the massacre “the worst thing that has happened to us in the history of Zionism,” tried to calm tension, visiting Hebron to offer his condolences, but protests and clashes ensued. Eventually the IDF responded by permanently closing major parts of Shuhada Street, one of Hebron’s main thoroughfares.
Standing in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Sharabati discusses his harrowing experience as a cameraman for an international publication following the massacre. “I heard the mosques calling for people to donate blood. So I put my clothes on and grabbed my camera and ran to the hospital,” he says. “I could not believe what I saw when I got there. My whole body was shaking.”
A couple of weeks later, Sharabati returned to the Tomb of the Patriarchs to cover the protests and clashes and was shot in the leg. “I was hit by a high velocity bullet, which has now permanently disabled me. I used to joke with a fellow cameraman that we would get shot by the army, but I never really believed it would happen.”
A video from the Associated Press archive shows a young and skinny Sharabati crying in pain as he is carried by several Palestinians to an ambulance.
After the Goldstein massacre, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership over the status of Hebron were held, culminating in the signing of the protocol concerning the city’s redeployment in 1997. The protocol handed over 80% of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority, while leaving the remaining 20% of the city, where the Jewish settlers were living, under IDF control.
Sharabati increasingly started to believe the negotiations were not going to end Israel’s military rule.
“When they were negotiating in Sinai in the mid-1990s, it was clear that the talks were not about evacuating the settlers from Hebron, but rather partial changes to the status of Hebron, which allowed them to stay.
“It was then that I realized that the Oslo Accords were not going to be the path to ending the occupation, but a continuing negotiation over minor changes to our lives.”
After the collapse of peace talks in early 2000, the situation significantly deteriorated when the second intifada broke out. Palestinian militants turned to suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and soldiers in Israel and the Palestinian territories, causing panic in Israeli society. Israel responded by launching a major operation in the West Bank to undermine the militants.
“We weren’t united as we were during the first intifada,” Sharabati says, referring to the second intifada in the city.
“We were chanting against each other at the protests – Islamic Jihad on one side, Fatah on another side, and Hamas on a third side.”
He believes that the violent nature of the second intifada was a strategic mistake and publicly opposed it. “To begin with, it was not fair to the ordinary people of the city to suffer the consequences of one person, who would take a pistol and shoot a soldier or someone else in the street,” Sharabati explains. “The other issue with the armed struggle was not everyone could participate in it.
That’s why we needed to participate in a non-violent, popular struggle.”
The failure of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the subsequent second intifada pulled him away from political activism.
He was no longer interested in participating in protests for a number of years.
“I went down and down and down and down until I learned about the model of popular resistance,” he says. “I learned a lot from watching people in Budrus peacefully protest the wall.”
Today, Sharabati believes there is no hope for negotiations or engagement with Israel. Instead, he believes that the main path forward is popular protest and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
“BDS is the main tool for us to advance the cause,” Sharabati says. “We need to use these non-violent tools to free Hebron.”
Even though BDS has done little to change the situation on the ground, he believes that in the long run it will succeed.
“If you look at the South Africa model, many doubted that boycott would change that regime and make it fall.
I think the same is possible here,” he says. “I don’t think we will achieve our rights next year, but we will one day.”
HE ALSO said that he does not believe coexistence is possible with the settlers who live in Hebron under the city’s current arrangement.
“We cannot coexist with settlers as long as we are living under occupation and as long as they have a mentality that does not accept us,” Sharabati says. “But if they changed their mentality and we were given independence, I think some sort of arrangement would be possible.”
Walking to the center of Hebron where the Jewish and Arab parts of the city meet, Sharabati comes upon a group of Spanish tourists. The group’s leader tells the tourists, “This is the Palestinian part and over there is the Jewish part.” Sharabati interrupts her and tells the tourists firmly, but with a smile, “This is all the occupied part. The very, very, very occupied part.”