Hebron - Living with the Deal

By Shahin, Mariam | The Middle East, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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Hebron - Living with the Deal


Shahin, Mariam, The Middle East


Three years ago a deranged fanatic, Baruch Goldstein, shot into a crowd of worshippers at the Haram al Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron and murdered 29 Palestinians. Since then the name Hebron has been connected with violence, hatred and mistrust. Many analysts predicted that it would be there where the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis would fail. In January, however, the long-awaited agreement on Hebron was finally born.

Like most of the Palestinian-Israeli agreements, the Hebron deal is far from perfect and hardly equitable to both sides. But Yasser Arafat proclaimed the city free and Palestinian self-rule there has begun. Now Palestinians and the few hundred Jewish settlers who live in Hebron look with caution towards the future.

As the withdrawal of Israeli troops from all except the centre of Hebron took place, both Palestinians and Israelis continued to be sceptical of the agreement that was advertised as a peace pact. The conflict in Hebron, unlike much of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, is not based on nationalism but on religion. In Hebron, home to the tomb of biblical patriarch Abraham, said to be the father of both Arabs and Jews, it is religion and religious rights which override all other considerations.

And here as elsewhere in the world it is a question of might being right. In theory Muslims and Jews - Hebron does not have an indigenous Christian community - could live in peace together.

In ancient times the Hebrews subdued the original Hebronites, the Canaanites, by force and bloodshed and so it has been ever since. The force with the largest stick, the most guns rules Hebron. Although Muslim-Jewish coexistence has been much more peaceful historically than Christian-Jewish coexistence or Muslim-Christian coexistence, in Hebron there have been massacres on both sides since the beginning of the century.

The original Jews of Hebron left in the late 1920s after almost 70 were killed when Arab fury at Zionist designs to build a Jewish homeland in Arab Palestine erupted in 1929.

The descendants of the Hebron Jews today live in Haifa and other cities in Israel from which the Palestinian population was driven out in 1947-48. Representatives of the original Hebron Jewish community have made public announcements renouncing a "right of return" to Hebron. Instead, a group of mostly American-born Jews decided to "resettle" Hebron. In the beginning of the 1980s a group of New York/New Jersey Jews settled in Belt Hadassah and other buildings that belonged to the Jewish community before 1948.

Palestinians in Hebron do not deny the properties that once belonged to the Jewish community at the beginning of the century "belong to the Jews" today. The problem with the cohabitation of Hebron appears to be one of spirit. Since they "resettled" the city in the early 1980s the "settlers" as they are known, have sported small submachine guns, rifles and hand guns as part of their daily attire.

Worse still, the settlers are generally unfriendly and frequently even abusive of Palestinians in the city. Vehicle tyres are slashed, vegetable carts are overturned and spitting is a common way in which settlers show their distaste for their Arab neighbours.

In such an atmosphere it is difficult to build peace. And unlike many other Israelis, the Jews in Hebron have no desire to enter into a "dialogue" with their neighbours.

"These people don't belong here," said a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to Beit Hadassah 12 years ago from Moscow, of the 120,000 Palestinians in Hebron. "They are all new immigrants from Egypt and Jordan the Palestinian does not exist," he added, echoing the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the early 1970s.

The actual number of these rather narrow-minded and well-armed people total only around 420, but they have been influential enough to make Hebron one of the most talked-about cities of 1996.

The involvement of the US government in the negotiated agreement was considerable and only underlined the amount of US influence exerted on the Palestinian-Israeli agreements overall.

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