A rare visit to Hebron

Any Israeli who reads the newspapers has at least a rough idea of what’s going on in Hebron, yet somehow seeing it firsthand is a hugely different experience.

Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, sacred to Jews and Muslims (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, sacred to Jews and Muslims
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, seeing something first-hand is worth a thousand pictures.
Any Israeli who reads the newspapers has at least a rough idea of what’s going on in Hebron: A small community of approximately 700 Jews is living in the heart of a Palestinian city of 250,000.
Yet somehow seeing it firsthand is a hugely different experience.
On Monday, I tagged along on a tour of Hebron with Americans for Peace Now.
As we drove past the rows of shuttered shops – a staggering 1,800 of them – I said to myself, “You must be kidding me.”
It was only at that moment that the impact of the settlement in Hebron became clear to me. I realized that every shuttered shop represented lives disrupted by the combination of occupation, settlement activity and terrorism.
Those 1,800 Palestinian shops were either forced to close by the government, or had to close because their customers couldn’t get to them.
That’s 1,800 families (at least) whose ability to make a living has been harmed by measures taken to protect 700 settlers. And hundreds more families left the old quarter of Hebron because they could only access their own homes from the back, via rooftops from other buildings.
Americans for Peace Now made an effort to present both sides of the story. We heard from both Orit Struck, a member of Knesset (Bayit Yehudi) from Hebron, and Jiwad, a Palestinian on the staff of Youths Against Settlement.
From MK Struck’s perspective, there’s no question that Jews belong in Hebron. The settlers who live in the heart of Hebron, near the Cave of the Patriarchs, cite Genesis 23:16 as proof: “Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: 400 shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.”
She spoke about the pre-state Jewish presence in Hebron, and the 1929 massacre in which 67 Jews died. She also claimed the streets aren’t closed because of the occupation but because of terrorism.
But, as one of the guides pointed out, whenever there’s tension between Jews and Arabs, regardless of who started the fight, the IDF’s automatic response is to separate the Jews from the Arabs. And one thing you can be sure of – it’s not the Jews who are going to be inconvenienced. After Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in February 1994, although the Jews lost access to parts of the holy site, the Palestinians suffered even more restrictions.
Struck said, “There is no street in Hebron where Arabs cannot walk. Jews cannot walk anywhere except on this street.” Her statement was proven untrue a little while later when we came to an area where soldiers don’t allow Arabs to pass.
Struck tried to make it sound like the presence of the settlement wasn’t a big deal.
Hebron is a prosperous city, she said. The Jews are only taking 3 percent of the land.
She ignored the fact that the Jews are only 0.28 percent of the population – meaning they take 15 times as much land, per person, as the Palestinians.
And the land now closed to the Palestinians was a commercial district. The importance of some streets – say Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, or Fifth Avenue in Manhattan – is disproportionate to the quantity of ground they occupy.
We also heard from Jiwad, a Palestinian who works for Youth Against Settlements.
He talked about the personal cost of the closures. Pointing at the empty apartments above the shuttered shops, he spoke of houses abandoned because rooftop access is so difficult, of people who can’t work.
Jiwad’s organization tries to make social connections between the hardy (or stubborn or option-less) few Palestinians who continue to live in the area despite the inconvenience.
In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a problem with Jews living in Hebron. It’s part of our history and heritage, a city with a long-standing Jewish community. Some of the land where the settlers are living was once Jewish land.
But these aren’t ideal times.
And maintaining that Jewish remnant in Hebron imposes a disproportionate burden on the Palestinians who also live there – the vast majority of whom are, of course, not terrorists.
I don’t know what the best solution to the problem is.
One option, of course, would be to order the Jews to leave – to make a strategic withdrawal until peaceful coexistence becomes possible.
Another alternative would be to allow Palestinians access to the closed streets and shuttered shops and come up with some other security measures for the settlers – shifting the burden from the majority to the minority.
But the current “solution” – disrupting thousands of Palestinian lives so 700 settlers can live in relative safety in the heart of a Palestinian city – is patently unfair.
Barry Leff is a rabbi and entrepreneur who lives in Jerusalem.