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The Hebron Massacre: Land soaked in blood of rival claimants

FROM THE moment that a refugee from Iraq paid 400 shekels of silver for a plot of land in which to bury his wife in the Judean hills south of Jerusalem 4,000 years ago, the history of that land has been soaked in the blood of rival claimants.

The man from Iraq was Abraham, founder of the Jewish religion, ancestor of the Jewish people, who came from Ur of the Chaldees, in modern-day Iraq. His purchase of a burial plot, narrated in Genesis, was the first recorded acquisition of land in history. There in the Cave of Machpelah he created a family vault for his wife Sarah, himself, and his son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. It is known today as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Nowhere, other than Jerusalem, are the rival claims to the Holy Land more acute. Muslims also regard themselves as the sons of Abraham, or Ibrahim, as the Koran calls him, through his son Ishmael (Ismail). Hence Palestinian Muslims refer to the Jews as awlad ammi - 'cousins'.

After the Arab invasion of Palestine in 638, the new rulers quickly converted the majestic stones of the synagogue built by Herod the Great into a mosque. In their turn the Crusaders built a church on the same spot. After a brief moment of European ascendancy, the site reverted to Muslim control.

The Mamelukes who conquered the area in 1260 refused to allow Jews beyond the seventh step of the eastern wall. It was a status which the Jewish population was forced to accept for centuries, even though Hebron was one of five sites of continuous Jewish occupation through the ages.

Hebron became the site of some of the bloodiest outrages this century. In the 1929 riots which swept Palestine under the British mandate, 67 Jews were killed. Some 31 families returned in 1931, but were evacuated by the British in 1936 after the second Arab revolt.

Among Palestinians, Hebronites (or Khalili, after the name for Abraham) are the butt of jokes for their supposed stupidity. Today Hebron is a hotbed of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in its most virulent form.

Successive Israeli governments were aware of the feelings of the Muslim population and conscious of the potential for disaster. After the town fell to Israeli forces in 1967, they allowed Jews to pray once more in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. But they banned Jewish settlement in the town. The rise in the influence of the militant Zionist settler movement Gush Emunim and the coming to power of a Likud government in the late 1970s enabled the Jewish settlers to establish themselves first on the hills outside Hebron, and then right in the centre of Hebron itself.

Hebron means very little to the overwhelming majority of Israelis, but for a small band of well-armed, highly motivated and militant Jews, the Arab town remains central to their tenet of the right of Jews to settle anywhere in the biblical Land of Israel.

----------------------------------------------------------------- HEBRON: 4,000 years of history ----------------------------------------------------------------- 2000BC: Abraham buys burial plot 20BC: Herod builds synagogue over site AD638: Arab Muslim invasion 1929: Massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron. Jews leave 1931: Some 31 Jewish families return 1936: More anti-Jewish riots. Jews leave 1948: Hebron falls under Jordanian control 1967: Israeli conquest. Jews allowed to pray at Tomb of Patriarchs again. -----------------------------------------------------------------