Tense Hebron awaits Netanyahu’s visit for anniversary of 1929 massacre

The tombs of the patriarchs, including Abraham revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians, in Hebron. Photo by Gil Zohar.

The tombs of the patriarchs, including Abraham revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians, in Hebron. Photo by Gil Zohar.

(NEWS ANALYSIS) HEBRON, West Bank — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit the Palestinian city of Hebron on Sept. 4, where the revered patriarch Abraham venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews is buried and where a massacre of about 70 Jews 90 years ago still stokes tensions between Palestine and Israel.

Nestled in the Judean Hills 30 km south of Jerusalem, Hebron was once a model of Jewish-Muslim coexistence. Today, it is typified by the strained and often violent relationship between its Israeli and Palestinian residents (about 215,000). The name Hebron in both Hebrew and Arabic – Hevron and al-Khalil – is derived from a root meaning “friend,” i.e. Abraham, the friend of God.

Netanyahu is expected to pose for the cameras in front of Hebron’s ancient fruit and vegetable market, which was a Jewish neighborhood until the August 1929 riot. The government recently approved plans to rebuild the neighborhood, which adjoins the Avraham Avinu (Patriarch Abraham) synagogue and housing complex in the medieval fortress.

A mosaic of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat. Photo by Gil Zohar.

A mosaic of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat. Photo by Gil Zohar.

Netanyahu is no doubt hoping some positive media coverage will propel him and his Likud Party to another term in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, in the Sep. 17 election. In the April election, Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition, the first leader to do so in the country’s history.

The prime minister will also visit Beit Hamachpelah, another apartment building which the government recently permitted Jews to move into, and Beit Leah and Beit Rachel -- two other centuries-old buildings near the tombs and shrines of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah – which Jews moved into recently.

While the carefully-crafted public relations tour is intended to convey the impression that the government is expanding Hebron’s tiny Jewish community of 800 people protected by some 1,000 Israel Defense Force soldiers, the reality is different.

Earlier this year, Netanyahu refused to renew the mandate of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), a civilian observer mission established in the West Bank city in 1994. Both Palestine and Israel called for its creation so that international staff could monitor and report any breaches of humanitarian law in the region.

Under the 1997 Hebron accords, formally called Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, the city is divided into H1 - the prosperous Palestinian Authority-ruled city today home to some 200,000 Arabs, and H2 - the remaining 20 percent of the city controlled by the Israeli military.  The divide resembles an apocalyptic nightmare and stands as an angry symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Signs of protest hang in the Jewish quarter of Hebron. Photo by Gil Zohar.

Signs of protest hang in the Jewish quarter of Hebron. Photo by Gil Zohar.

The terrible irony is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city of brotherly hate was home to Jews and Arabs living side by side, sharing hospitals and holy sites, piety and poverty. With the rise of Zionist immigration to Palestine following the end of World War I, and the concomitant growth of Arab nationalism, tensions boiled over in the 1929 massacre.

The tensions were stoked by Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, who accused Jews of plotting to take over Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque and build a third Jewish Temple in its place. The Jewish survivors were evacuated, effectively ending the Jewish presence in Hebron. The wound has never healed, and the massacre remains central to the Jewish narrative to this day.

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, granted by the League of Nations in 1921.

In the aftermath of the massacres, British mandate forces arrested and prosecuted dozens of Arabs. While most of the death sentences handed down were commuted to life imprisonment, three Arabs who, according to a report by the British government to the League of Nations, "committed particularly brutal murders at Safad and Hebron," were put to death on June 17, 1930.   

Every year, the Palestinian Authority (PA) marks the execution of these three murderers – Muhammad Jamjoum, Fuad Hijazi, and Ataa Al-Zir – and reinforces the message that dying while carrying out an act of terrorism guarantees the souls of the terrorists do not die.

In June this year, on the 89th anniversary of their execution, the Palestinian broadcast channel PA TV marked the execution of "the three heroes" and used the opportunity to add that they have become "a legend of self-sacrifice for the homeland" and that "souls that have been sacrificed for their country will not die."

When Jews returned at Passover 1968, following the 1967 Six Day War, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger (who died in 2015), the Palestinian population viewed them as 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, Dr. Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Following riots, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) closed the heart of the city’s market life to Palestinians. Storefronts were welded shut, and the urban rot began.

Palestinians have since then experienced ever-expanding restrictions on movement around the cluster of five heavily-protected Jewish neighborhoods.

After the outbreak in 2000 of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of West Bank, the IDF further limited movement for Palestinians, setting up additional checkpoints and closing a number of roads to vehicular traffic. The result is an eerie landscape of devastation.

The heart of the conflict is the sliver of the city surrounding the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Here settlers brush up against Palestinian residents, and Muslim and Jewish worshipers are separated by metal barriers. The shrine is divided into Jewish and Muslim sides. Christians may freely visit both.

Update on Sep. 4: An excerpt of Netanyahu’s remarks during his Hebron visit, given by the prime minister’s media advisor:

“I am proud that one year ago my government approved the plan for the Jewish Quarter, to build dozens of new housing units for the Jews of Hebron. Residents moved into Machpelah House last week. We are also dealing with other important issues that you brought up, regarding accessibility in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the realization of the historic Jewish property rights. While we are not coming to banish anyone, neither will anyone banish us. To cite the late Menachem Begin and the late Yigal Allon: ‘Hebron will not be devoid of Jews.’ It will not beJudenrein. And I say on the 90th anniversary of the disturbances – we are not foreigners in Hebron, we will stay here forever. We always remember the eternal call of Caleb, son of Jephuneh, who was faithful to Hebron, and we act in accordance with it: ‘Let us go up.’”