Largest city in the West Bank and second largest city in the Palestinian territories after Gaza, Hebron is located approximately 30km south of Jerusalem. The city is divided into two sectors: H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2, roughly 20% of the city, administered by Israel. 175,000 to 250,000 Palestinians live in Hebron along with 600-850 Jewish settlers that live in 4 settlements in the city alone.
The city is interesting not only because it is the only city in the West Bank where settlers have settlements within the city itself but because of its complex history and historical importance for both Jews and Muslims and Christians. It is considered the second most important city for Jews as it is connected to Abraham – in the Cave of the Patriarchs it is believed that there are located the double tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, considered the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people. It is a holy city in Islam also.
Hamas and its military branch Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, formed in 1991 ‘started out’ in Hebron. In 1994 a Jewish American physician and religious extremist came into the Ibrahimi mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs complex on Ramadan eve and opened fire on the worshipers there. He killed 29 people and wounded 125, emptying 5 (sic!) magazines on them! The soldiers stationed outside did nothing because of the policy of non-engagement and non-confrontation with the settlers. Worshipers themselves beat him to death.
Goldstein was not allowed to be buried on the Jewish cemetery and instead they buried him in the memorial park in Kiryat Arba (Jewish settlement outside of Hebron) in Kahane memorial park named after rabbi Meir Kahane who founded the far-right political party Kach, a terrorist organization, outlawed by both Israel and USA.
Anyway, that’s one of the main reasons why Hamas started the suicide bombings in Israel in mid 1995.
Shuhada Street in Hebron is the main road leading to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It used to be the central wholesale market of the Hebron region. After the aforementioned massacre Israel closed the street for Palestinians. Palestinian vehicular traffic was allowed in early 2000s but the once bustling market and numerous shops remained closed. Due to violence that occurred in the second intifada the street was closed again. The central bus station was turned into an Israeli army base and the wholesale market and fruit markets were closed. The result is that today the once main artery of the city – Shuhada street – is now a ghost street.
Palestinian residents can enter only by foot and the road is opened to settler vehicles.
On the map below you can see the complex situation in Hebron, the H1 and H2 zones along with the four settlements and Kiryat Arba.
The spiritual center of the city, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the surrounding area is a complex maze of checkpoints, completely closed and partly closed streets for Palestinian residents. In some cases if you are in one part of H1 and would like to visit your relative just across the cemetery complex you are not allowed to cross the street. Instead you have to go all the way around because the street is exclusively for settler movement.
Supposedly for security reasons, which of course is silliness – anyone who wants can cause chaos by just standing on the stone wall of the cemetery beside the road with for example an RPG… Sure, that would be suicide because of all the patrolling soldiers, border patrol and the police. The real reason of the mess is simply to make Palestinian lives difficult.
So how did it come to all this mess?
In order to explain that we need to consult history books – particularly Hebron Massacre of 1929 in which 69 Jews were killed by Palestinians. The massacre itself was just part of 1929 Palestine riots in which 133 Jews were killed (note that half of those were killed in Hebron). The riots started with the rumors Jews were planning to take control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
One third of the Jewish Hebron community was slaughtered by their Muslim neighbors, many were saved by their kind Muslim friends (good neighbors). In any case, the surviving Jews were evacuated to Jerusalem ending the presence of Jews in Hebron for the time.
After the 1948 war for independence Israelis lost control of the West Bank and Jerusalem which was annexed by Jordan. It remained under their control until the 6 day war in 1967. After that the steady repopulation continued.
It started with about 60 settlers who requested permission to go and celebrate Pesach in Hebron. Reluctantly the military gave them permission but only for one night. When the military came to bring them back to Jerusalem they promptly refused to return. The military and government succumbed to pressure and instead of evacuating them they surrounded and protected their house from Arab attacks.
That’s how the settlements within the city started… quickly attracting more and more settlers and expansion followed with more and more military presence to “keep peace”. Today some 600-850 settlers live in 4 permanent settlements, dividing the city.
I hope that with this historical context it is a bit easier to understand how radical the Jews that decide to come to live among 250.000 Palestinians are. And reasons why they do it.