An Age-Old Dispute

By Shahin, Mariam | The Middle East, June 1994 | Go to article overview

An Age-Old Dispute


Shahin, Mariam, The Middle East


The city of Hebron is considered by Muslims and Jews as holy to their respective faiths. But it is in Hebron where the two sides have fought each other most vehemently for the past 60 years. A 1929 massacre of religious Jews by Palestinians is now being used as an excuse for the Hebron mosque killings in February. "An eye for an eye," one settler was quoted as saying.

But the Tomb of the Patriarchs, or the tombs of Abraham, and other old testament patriarchs, could have been a point of unification between the three monotheistic faiths rather than a killing ground.

According to the Torah, the Bible and the Quran, the patriarch Abraham was father to both Arabs and Jews. In many ways the city of Hebron is as much a litmus test for all good and all evil that can develop between Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) and the Jews of Israel.

Hebron is one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in Palestine, which is widely believed to have been inhabited by the ancient Canaanites as early as 2000 BC. The origins of Hebron's old testament name - Qiryat Arba - (or the village of the four) has been the topic of heated disagreements among students and teachers of history.

The main dispute amongst scholars is over whether the number four refers to the four patriarchs believed to be buried here or if it is a reference to the four Canaanite tribes that settled the town in pre-Biblical times. Religious scholars tend to support the former view, while secular scholars tend to support the latter. Jewish tradition has it that Abraham chose the Cave of Makhpelah as the burial grounds for some members of his family because he knew it to be the burial site of Adam and Eve, a theory in which Muslims also believe.

An envoy of Moses coming from Transjordan described Hebron as the "land of milk and honey" to the Jewish prophet after returning from an exploratory expedition. According to the Book of Joshua, in 1200 BC Moses' successor Joshua invaded and destroyed the city and killed all its inhabitants and made it their home.

In 70 AD the Jews revolted against the Roman occupation and were expelled from Hebron until the city came under Muslim rule in the seventh century. In 1099 invading Crusaders again banned Jews and Muslims from the city. It was only after Muslim rule was restored under the Mamluk sultans (1248-1517) that Jews and Muslims were again allowed to return to Jerusalem. …

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