Hebron

Just three months after the partial Israeli withdrawal from Hebron, the peace process lies in ruins and the issue of Jewish settlements has put hatred back on its streets. Patrick Cockburn reports. Photographs by David Lurie
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The Independent Culture
In January, Hebron, the city on the West Bank where hatred between Palestinians and Israelis is at its most intense, joined the list of the world's divided cities. There are not many of them and in recent years the number has been going down. Nicosia is still rigidly partitioned between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. But chunks of the Berlin Wall are now sold as mementoes and office blocks are rising in Beirut along the line where Muslim and Christian snipers used to pick each other off. Only in Hebron are divisions getting deeper.

The mathematics of partitition are simple enough. At the beginning of the year, after prolonged negotiations and American mediation, Israeli troops withdrew from the four-fifths of Hebron where 100,000 Palestinians live. The remaining fifth, including the al-Ibrahimi mosque, called the Tomb of the Patriarchs by Jews, the religious centre of the city, stayed under the control of Israel. Here, in the Israeli enclave, more than 1,000 soldiers guard 400 deeply fanatical Jewish settlers to the anger of 20,000 Palestinians who find themselves on the wrong side of the line.

"Hebron is waking up fast to the fact that it is divided," says Khalid Amayreh in his office beside the Palestinian vegetable market which was forced to move away from the main Jewish settlement in the city centre. "The Israelis view the agreement in January as introducing de facto partition. When a Palestinian goes to the area they control he is made to feel he is in another country. It is like a Catholic in Belfast wandering into a Protestant neighbourhood."

In fact, it is a great deal worse than Belfast. Everywhere there are signs of detestation between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. The latter number only about 52 families, but are highly vociferous and heavily armed. Above the building which serves as their administrative headquarters beside the Palestinian Casbah, or covered market, there is a large sign reading: "This market was built on Jewish property, stolen by the Arabs after the 1929 massacre." This is a reference to the slaughter of 67 Jews which brought an end to the centuries-old Jewish community in the city before settlers returned in the wake of the Israeli conquest of the West Bank in 1967. (But truth in Hebron is rarely simple. Descendants of the old Jewish community have started turning up in the city to say they have no sympathy with the Jewish settlers of today. They accuse the settlers of illegally occupying their houses).

The physical division between the two communities is best seen in the al-Ibrahimi mosque, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. It is this which brought the settlers to Hebron. It is a religious prize second only to Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Here, according to the Book of Genesis, Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah to bury his wife Sarah. His methods were more diplomatic than those of the present-day settlers. "Let him give it to me at the full price," said Abraham, although the owner was willing to give him the field for free. Later King Herod the Great surrounded the holy site with a wall made out of enormous blocks of cream-coloured stone which still stand, but were later topped by Muslim minarets.

Today the al-Ibrahimi is divided into a mosque and a synagogue. It is under the sole control of Israeli soldiers. Beside the entrance to the synagogue are two armouries for Jewish worshippers to check in their weapons. The green metal door between the two halves of the building has been tightly closed ever since the day in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, a reserve captain in the army and a settler, entered the mosque during prayers. Firing his sub-machine gun into the backs of the worshippers he killed 29 of them until he was beaten to death by the survivors. The Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians have never really recovered from that moment.

But it is not just the facts of division which give Hebron its atmosphere not just of rancour but of super-charged hatred. There are Jewish settlers in the Old City of Jerusalem, much disliked by their Palestinian neighbours, but relations do not have the quality of visible detestation seen in Hebron. The reasons for this are simple enough. The settlers in the city regard Palestinians as sub-human. They see them as the equivalent of the Nazis. Noam Arnon, the settler spokesman, says Mustapha Natsche, the Palestinian mayor, had called for Hebron to become Judenrein - Jew free. Since German is not a language with which Mr Natsche is familiar this seemed unlikely. Under questioning, Mr Arnon agreed that this was his own interpretation of Mr Natsche's criticism of the settlers.

This paranoia may be self-induced, but it is certainly self-fulfilling. For instance, the Cordoba Palestinian girl's primary school stands on a bluff just above Beit Hadassah, one of the main settler buildings which also houses their museum commemorating the massacre of 1929. At the bottom of the steps leading from Cordoba school to the street, last year, two settler women were waiting for the children, all under the age of 12, to go home at the end of lessons. As they walked down the stone steps, the two women spat at them and screamed curses. Several Israeli soldiers stood by but with their backs to the two women, presumably in case the children might attack their tormentors. One of the Palestinian parents said: "The children are more frightened of the big dogs the settlers have than of the spitting." It is a measure of the atmosphere in Hebron that the incident at the Cordoba school caused little comment among settlers, Palestinians or Israeli soldiers.

It is deceptive, however, to see the lives of the Palestinians of Hebron as all equally affected by the settlers. They are few in number and are only in a position to harass the Palestinians close to the buildings where they live. But every Palestinian in the city is directly affected by the presence of 1,000 or more Israeli troops who defend the settlers. Constant military curfews have disrupted business in the city. It is they who make it difficult for Arab pilgrims to visit the al-Ibrahimi mosque which in turn means ruin for the Palestinian shops selling souvenirs in the neighbouring streets. Since the partition in January, the four-fifths of Hebron controlled by the Palestinian Authority is no longer subject to curfews. But any deterioration in the political situation in the rest of the West Bank makes it difficult to get in or out of the city. Long queues of cars and trucks build up at Israeli checkpoints. Local Palestinian businessmen - the city is a big producer of shoes - cannot travel or move their goods.

The economic effect of Hebron being sealed off is important because the city is the centre of the southern West Bank with a population of half a million. Its businessmen are considered canny and capable of raising large sums in capital through their extended families. They already dominate shopkeeping in Palestinian districts of Jerusalem. Christian pilgrims who buy carved wooden models of the Holy Family in Christian Quarter Street in Jerusalem close to the Holy Sepulchre are probably buying from a Muslim Hebronite.

Other Palestinians joke about Hebronites being doltish but tough. They are also clannish in the most literal sense of the word. Hebron is a city of clans so large they are really tribes. In January one of the most popular leaders in the city, Rafiq al-Natsche, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said of the incoming Palestinian Authority: "We are very worried by any monopoly of power by the intelligence services." Then he reflected that his own extended clan of Natsche had 20,000 members and it would be difficult for anybody in Palestinian intelligence to touch him. Other clans such as the Jabari and the Tamimi are almost as powerful.

There was a brief moment when the Oslo accords were signed in 1993 when the Jewish settlers on the West Bank seemed to represent the past. Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, considered them a marginal group, whose programme of taking over the whole of the Land of Israel from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean was out of date. But in the event it was the settlers, and above all those of Hebron - a larger group than they at first sight appear because they are linked to the 7,000 settlers in Kiryat Arba overlooking the city - who demonstrated that they represented the future as much as Rabin.

It did not have to happen that way. When Baruch Goldstein massacred worshippers in al-Ibrahimi mosque in 1994, polls showed that a majority of Israelis favoured moving the Jewish settlers out of Hebron. But in relations between Israelis and Palestinians the communal solidarity of each side almost invariably predominates over other emotions. The settlers stayed. A student of extreme nationalist views from Bar-Ilan university in Tel Aviv called Yigal Amir used to organise solidarity tours to Hebron. At the end of 1995 it was he who fired two shots into Yitzhak Rabin's back. Contrary to what the late prime minister hoped, it is Hebron, with its visceral racial hate, which may turn out to represent the future of relations between Israelis and Palestinians

Police arrest Palestinians in 'H2', the Old City, Hebron, still under IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) control Settlers at the divided al-Ibrahimi mosque, known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and second in importance only to Temple Mount in JerusalemFrom left: heavily armed settlers shopping at their local store; Baruch Marzel, leading spokesman of the banned Kach party in Hebron's Tel Rumeda settlement; former IDF military base and prison on the day of Yasser Arafat's first visit to the city

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