Hebron is 3000 years old and home to about 160,000 Palestinians and 600 fortified Israeli Jewish settlers with several thousand others in surrounding settlements. As well as a feeling that they are living an illusion, my overriding attitude to religious people who want to live close to their holy places is sympathy. Hebron marks the spot where Abraham, the shared patriarch of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, bought a plot of land for 400 shekels according to Genesis. The Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Matriarchs, Sara, Rebecca, and Leah are held to buried there. In 2003 vandals trashed Joseph’s tomb at Nablus, and in September 2008 there were reports that Jewish religious artefacts at the Tombs were desecrated. It would be callous to make light of the depth to which this cut Jewish religious sensibilities. Another memory, 67 of old Hebron’s Jews were massacred by Palestinians and the remainder expelled in a 1929 pogrom in punishment for increased Jewish immigration. And another – the politically-motivated murderer of Yitzak Rabin came from Hebron’s new town, Kiryat Arba. One more – in 1994 a Jewish settler massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb; settlers then built a shrine to the gunmen, who was killed by survivors of the attack.
The threat of violence is one that can’t be negotiated away and because of it this small proportion of settlers require 170,000 Palestinians are restricted in their movement about Hebron. and this is why, for pragmatic reasons, it is necessary to end the occupation by evacuation rather than simple hand-over. It is necessary to remove a community from its home.
Moreover there is a mounting catalogue of other acts of hostility against the Palestinian population – for example, the origins of the most recent violence:
“In March last year, about 10 Jewish families moved into the building, which they claim was bought through an agent from the Palestinian man who built the house, Saed Rajabi.
After the settlers occupied the building, Mr Rajabi told police that he had not sold the house and lodged a petition with the High Court seeking their eviction.
A subsequent police investigation concluded that the purchase documents produced by the settlers to prove their ownership were forgeries and that Mr Rajabi was legally in possession of the house on the night the settlers moved in”
A High Court order to vacate the house followed. The occupants refused and on Thursday the evacuation began:
“We encountered very little resistance, at first,” recounted Hebron Police Commander Avshalom Peled. “We had the element of surprise.”
Within minutes, however, hundreds of hardcore settlers, mostly youths, sprang into action and ignited one of the largest confrontations the area has seen in years.
First, there was the oil that people in the house had spread on the floor of the hallway. Police officers, who carried no arms other than their holstered revolvers, slipped and fell as they made their way forward. The stairs too were slathered with grease.
“We weren’t surprised by any of that,” Cdr. Peled said. “But the potatoes and the acid, that surprised us.”
Settlers, he said had spiked several potatoes with long nails and threw them at his men as they made their way through the house. Then came bottles of what Cdr. Peled said was acid. One policeman was severely burned in the face and taken quickly to hospital”
It got worse. Having lost the hosue the settlers went on the rampage against Palestinians.
“When it became clear the House of Peace was lost, the settler youths turned their attention to some of the Palestinian houses that lie in the valley between Hebron and the settlement of Kiryat Arba.
Breaking through the security fence that rings the settlement, several young men climbed down to three of the houses. They lit fires alongside two of them, rolled burning tires down to another, overturned rooftop water tanks and broke off a satellite TV dish, throwing it on the patio below. They pelted soldiers and journalists with rocks.
Shots were fired at one point as a settler, captured on video by a man across the valley, fired at a house. Two men were wounded, said Hisham Abu Sraifan, the owner of one of the houses, and were taken to hospital.
The youths smashed windows in one home, and threw in a burning lantern. Inside, 12 adults, mostly women, and 15 children huddled in fear.
As the mob closed in on the house, and no police or Israeli soldiers were in the area, a number of Israeli journalists broke ranks and ran to the house to chase away the attackers.
“I thought they were going to lynch those people,” said Avi Issacharoff, the Haaretz reporter who led the rescue. “I couldn’t just stand by.”
“I can’t believe that people – Israelis, Jews – can sink so low and do such things,” he said.”
On Saturday Israel declared the entire southern section of the West Bank a military zone to prevent Israeli hardliners from travelling to Hebron to barricade themselves with the families in Mr Rajabi’s house. They also prevented young Arab men under 45 from praying in Al Asqa Mosque, in case violence broke out. Nevertheless there were some 250 people in the house by the time 500 Israeli riot police moved to evacuate it. A riot promptly followed, which Olmert and other senior Israelis have called a pogrom.
This is the latest in a lengthening history of conflict around Hebron, involving violence, harassment and desecrations. By most vague accounts Kiryat Arba and Hebron are home to some of the most extremist Jews – expansionists who pursue a greater Israel, rightly viewed by Palestinians as “Jewish occupiers“. But it is not clear to me what proportion simply wants to live in peace close to their beloved tombs. Now as Israel clamps down on the far right some settlers, feeling their time approaching, are becoming militant in their struggle to remain. They must feel very cynical; Israel has encouraged settlers into the West Bank for many years.
Their throes have included desecrations, assaults on Palestinian people and property, calls of “death to Arabs” and most recently a riot against Palestinians conducted by young Jews in balaclavas. The people who did these things should be identified, arrested, charged, tried and convicted. They are a liability to peace and, more pertinently, a menace to Palestinians.
Any simple narrative of racist Israelis is complicated by the fact that these people are – finally! – being opposed, with tear gas and stun guns, by the Israeli state itself.
I’m not sure of the possible shades of arrangement between domination (occupation) and evacuation (withdrawal). Below is a round-up of the news – but what it won’t adequately tell you is what proportion of settlers is violent and what proportion isn’t; what proportion is politically extreme and what proportion simply wants to live in Hebron. It won’t tell you why the violence in Hebron and Kiryat Arba erupted, and how we should characterise those settlements in relation to other settlements. Pulling out of the settlements moves things closer to a two-state solution. Pogroms against Palestinians give a taste of what a one-state solution would look like.
Here is a Hebron timeline from 1899 BCE.
“Olmert speaks ‘as a Jew’. But more importantly, he speaks as an Israeli. Israel is a country that is the home to people who have suffered pogroms, in locations as diverse as Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, and the Arab world. It is also a liberal democracy. For those reasons it is right that crimes against groups of people, on the basis of their ethnicity or religion, be condemned and then punished with the utmost severity.”
The JTA – Jewish Groups back Israel against the settlers. There was just one exception, the National Council of Young Israel:
“”Watching Jews forcibly remove their Jewish brothers and sisters from their home and their community was a painful reminder of the Israeli government’s lack of understanding and compassion towards their own”
Sick-making, and also a window into the clannish sense of embattlement felt by some settlers.
A lethargic and totally inadequate response (or at least reported response) from a rabbi who heads up a Kiryat Arba yeshiva:
“These young people are very idealistic and have a lot of good qualities,” said Horowitz. “But they are also potentially very dangerous because they do not listen to the rabbis. And this small group attracted a lot of attention when they came to Beit Hashalom.”
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Isi Leibler who (I should say because I quote selectively below) unequivocally condemns the violence, but is principally concerned with the shame it brings to the Jewish state and conspicuously doesn’t use the word Palestinians:
“Let me say at the outset that it was wrong to expel the residents of Bet Shalom before the courts had made a final ruling on its ownership. On the surface, the property seems to have been legitimately purchased, and any suggestion that Jews should be prohibited from owning property in the city of our Patriarchs is unacceptable. But even if Defence Minister Ehud Barak was wrong and the Supreme Court erred by not overruling the police order to evacuate the house.”
It is important to remember that Jews would not be permitted to live in a sovereign Palestinian state, nor to tend the tombs. David Wilder (spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, who reveals a lot when he opts for the word ‘Arab’ instead of ‘Palestinian’):
“Following the expulsion of families from Beit Hashalom in Hebron, during a radio interview with the BBC, I was asked about our future plans. When I responded that the community would continue to purchase property in Hebron, the interviewer asked, “But won’t that just cause more violence?” I answered, “If I bought a home in London and was told that a Jew purchasing on ‘that side of the city’ would cause a violent reaction, how would that be viewed? Probably as anti-Semitism and racism. Why then can’t a Jew buy property in Hebron, just as people purchase homes all over the world?”
From B’Tselem’s Shooting Back video it seems a the settler who shot Palestinians was approached by Palestinian boys who were already holding rocks. It’s hard to know what happened:
“When he saw Arabs approaching him holding rocks, he took out his handgun and told them to let him by. One of the Arabs came up to him and my client retreated. Another Arab holding a rock in his hand pushed him and he moved back again. Then three Arabs, also holding rocks, surrounded him and he fired above the shoulder of the one who stood in front of him and a second one. They charged him, knocked him down, jumped on him and stoned him. He was taken to hospital and required 36 stitches.”
The settler represesentatives have – this is rich – focused their protest on legal irregularities:
“However it is unthinkable and intolerable that Israel’s top leadership should change the rules in the middle of the game, expecting the other side to play by the old ones, while they play by the new. Such actions, as we have recently witnessed, quite literally push a large segment of the population into a corner with no way out, creating a dangerously volatile situation.”
Rich because settlers have benefited from a weak rule of law in the past.
“Israel has long maintained that it has the right to continue building in existing settlements to account for ill-defined “natural growth” of the existing settler population — something the “road map” explicitly bans. But in his interview with The Jerusalem Post, Olmert acknowledged that Israel was not honoring its commitments.
“There is a certain contradiction in this between what we’re actually seeing and what we ourselves promised,” Olmert said.
“Obligations are not only to be demanded of others, but they must also be honored by ourselves. So there is a certain problem here,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Olmert added, however, that Israel believes a Bush letter to the Israeli government in 2004 “renders flexible to a degree what is written in the road map.”
In that letter, Bush wrote that “existing Israeli population centers” should be taken into consideration when the final borders of a Palestinian state are set down. Israel takes this to mean it will be able to retain major West Bank settlement blocs, where much of the controversial construction is going on.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed Olmert’s remarks. When both sides admit they are not carrying out all their obligations, that “should be the way for both of us to carry out our obligations,” Erekat said.”
If you are into boycotting Israel, it is difficult to respond. As aggressive anti-Zionists their impulse is to oppose the Israeli government in everything and demand a merging of states and peoples. But this logic requires them to argue that settlers should be left in place to fight with Palestinians like cats in a bag. So boycotters have no choice but to go quiet. You get the sense they hope the Israeli government will fail to contain Israeli extremists. I don’t think they will. Protecting Palestinians, preventing the theft and attacks onproperty is something that Israel can do unilaterally – and finally show signs of wanting to. This is an excellent development.
“Olmert, who has resigned over a corruption scandal but stays on as caretaker until after a February 10 election, has lately taken to describing settler attacks as “pogroms,” using the Russian term for violence against Jews a century ago that drove some to emigrate to Palestine and, in time, establish the Israeli state.
“We are a people whose historical ethos is built on the memory of pogroms,” Olmert told his cabinet, according to a statement. “The sight of Jews standing with guns and shooting at innocent Palestinian civilians can only be called a pogrom.”
His latest remarks were among his strongest yet. They follow the broadcasting of video apparently showing a settler shooting and wounding Palestinians, as well as stone-throwing and other violence across the West Bank, including the torching of olive groves, which Palestinians leaders described as “waging war.”
Olmert said he was pressing for prosecutions and “an end to the intolerable leniency … towards settlers who break the law.”
An Israeli court remanded one settler in custody on Sunday over the shooting allegation and released another on bail.”
I support the Israeli government in any efforts to shrink these settlements and weaken the Israeli extreme right. I hope that the Israeli troops can to some extent redeem their tarnished reputation with Hebron’s Palestinians – they are under criticism for being ill-prepared and providing inadequate defence of Palestinians. Things are delicate – there are signs of improved cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli authorities. There will be wreckers – both Israeli and Palestinian. Currently there are fears of a terror attack by sections of the Israeli extreme right. But as Lebanon’s Daily Star observes, practically the entire Israeli media is behind the Israeli government.