Absent minds keep ancient hatreds alive in Hebron

Jews and Muslims display selective memories of West Bank city's bloody history, writes Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online
Hebron - It was the street of forgetfulness. First came the three Palestinians in the clothing store, sewing sleeves on to shirts with old electric machines, promising us that no portrait of Yasser Arafat would ever hang in their store until the Israelis had left King David Street. An Israeli jeep passed the front door, then three Israeli settlers, Uzis in their hands, stared through the windows at us.

"How can we believe in the peace process when this is going on?" the youngest Palestinian asked, oddly balding for a man in his mid-twenties. "The Jews want us out of this street. They put curfews on us and they come round in the afternoons and at night, especially on Saturdays, to shout abuse. They call us 'dogs' and shout 'Death to Arabs' and throw stones. Now no Arab in Hebron will come and shop here because they don't want trouble, and three shopkeepers on the other side of the street have already closed down and moved elsewhere in town. Don't you see that this is what the Jews want?"

But didn't there used to be a Jewish community in Hebron, I asked innocently? Didn't there used to be a Jewish quarter in Hebron until the 1920s? "Never," the two younger men chorused in unison. "These settlers arrived because of the Likud government. They only want to harass us and drive us out."

They looked at me, trying to guess whether I had been taken in by this little act of forgetfulness. The middle-aged man in the corner, working his sewing machine in the shadows, watched my face and realised I knew his friends were lying. There had, of course, been a long-standing Jewish community in Hebron, living around the building known as the Beit Hadassa. In 1929, Arab rioters massacred 67 Jews not far from this little dilapidated street of 19th-century cut-stone houses. And after 1948, Jordanian troops destroyed what remained of the Jewish quarter.

"There were Jews here a long time ago," the middle-aged man grudgingly acknowledged. "But these Jews are new and they hate us." And here he was right. For on almost every wall and shuttered shop in the street, there were slogans in Hebrew. "This area is Jewish," one said. "Everyone in Hebron will be an Israeli," it was spray-painted elsewhere, and: "For every Arab dog will come his time." The name of the illegal right-wing party Kach was everywhere, just as the Palestinian Islamic Hamas movement had begun to scrawl its own name at the other end of the street with an equally unpleasant message: "No Jews here."

We walked down the street past the Beit Haddassa. A few hours earlier, someone had thrown a grenade at the Israeli army checkpoint 200 metres away and six Israeli paratroopers were patrolling in front of us. A teenage Palestinian schoolgirl walked beside us. "This street used to be alive and now it is a skeleton," she said. "How can there be any feeling of peace when these things are allowed to go on? No, I can't believe in the peace process. If Arafat can't get these settlers out of the centre of our town, how will he get part of Jerusalem?"

We left the girl, but the three settlers who had seen us in the shop were standing farther down the street and, as we passed, the shortest one shouted "Al tsrikhim leavour" to an Israeli soldier, and pointed at us - "Don't let them pass."

The soldier ignored him and we walked on. But on my return, I asked the young settler why he wanted to keep us from this street in Hebron. He turned away. So I asked the soldier. Why had the settler ordered him not to let us pass? The soldier called the settler over and talked to him for a few seconds. "He says he can't remember saying that," the soldier replied. Forgetfulness again. I suggested that for a settler mindful of history, this young man had a very short memory. The soldier grinned at me, a little ruefully.

At the other end of King David Street, where the grenades had been thrown earlier, an army jeep was parked by a road barrier, a soldier in the front with long, almost shoulder-length hair. "How ya doin'?" he asked. Six months in the States had given him an American-Israeli accent. And he was no friend of the settlers. "We've got to get out," he said with an easy smile. "We've got no place in Arab towns. Yes, the peace process is very good. We're even going to pull out of a little part of Hebron soon."

This will be news to the Palestinians in the cloth shop, the schoolgirl and the three settlers. For with a shrine holy to both Muslims and Jews, and the tomb of an Israeli mass murderer, Baruch Goldstein, honoured by the Jewish settlers across town in Kiryat Arba, Hebron is not a place to search for trust or compromise in the aftermath of Shimon Peres's declaration of a "peace revolution" before the US Congress.

So how about Jerusalem, I asked the friendly soldier? Would the Palestinians get the east of the city as their capital? "They're not going to get it," the soldier said. "It's out of the question. Arab towns, no problem. Jerusalem never." We shook hands. "Shalom," he said. "And take care - they throw stones." I was going to ask him who "they" were, but I thought I knew.

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