Menu JTA Search

BEHIND THE HEADLINES Hebron historically at center of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 (JTA) — Of all the issues confronted in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations so far, none has been so laden with emotion — and the potential for violence — as Hebron. The significance of Hebron in Jewish eyes can be summed up in a single word: history. According to biblical sources, Hebron was founded about 1720 B.C.E., making it the site of the oldest Jewish community in the world. It is first mentioned in Genesis 13 as one of the first places where the patriarch Abraham settled in the land of Canaan. As recorded in Genesis 23, Abraham purchased a plot of land in Hebron that included the cave he wanted to use as a burial site for his wife, Sarah. In later biblical history, King David was anointed in Hebron, where he reigned for seven years. When Jews revolted against Roman rule 1,000 years later, Hebron was the scene of extensive fighting. A Jewish presence remained there for most of the next two millennia, when Hebron was under successive Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman rule. On Aug. 23, 1929, local Arabs organized a pogrom in Hebron, killing 67 Jews and forcing the rest of the community to flee. With the exception of a few short-lived attempts to re-establish the Jewish presence there, Hebron had no Jewish community until after the 1967 Six-Day War. On April 4, 1968, on the eve of Passover, a small group of Jews came to the Park Hotel at the northern outskirts of Hebron to hold a seder. Although the seder was a private initiative, it took place with the permission of then-Deputy Premier Yigal Allon of the Labor Party and senior officers in the Israel Defense Force. Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the leader of the Park Hotel group, was surprised at how easy it was to hold the seder in the heart of the territories. That night his group declared that they would remain in Hebron. The settlers spent a month at the Park Hotel, after which they were moved to the military government headquarters on a hill overlooking Hebron. It was a victory for the Hebron settlers; they had established a civilian settlement within the protected confines of a military camp. As far as they were concerned, they were in Hebron to stay. In 1970, Labor Prime Minister Golda Meir supported the expansion of the Jewish settlement by creating a new town, Kiryat Arba, north of Hebron. The first 105 housing units in Kiryat Arba were ready by the fall of 1972. It was during this period that many of the seeds of the current conflict over Hebron were planted. While the Labor government at the time believed that Kiryat Arba would become a Jewish twin city to Arab Hebron, the settlers also wanted Hebron. In the early 1970s, the settlers repeatedly tried to sink roots in the old city amid the Arab population. Small groups of settlers moved into buildings such as Beit Hadassah and the synagogue of Avraham Avinu. The army removed them, but they tried again. Then they found what for them was the key to success: Seven women and 40 children settled in Beit Hadassah in downtown Hebron, leaving their husbands in Kiryat Arba. The authorities did not remove them. When the Likud Party came to power in 1977, the settlers were relieved, believing that they had a government firmly on their side. In succeeding years, the Jewish settlement of Hebron was expanded. By 1980, Harsina Hill was added to Kiryat Arba, and Beit Hadassah was renovated. But Hebron’s Arab residents regarded these moves as a direct provocation, and violence soon ensued. Shortly after renovation work began at Beit Hadassah, yeshiva student Yehoshua Saloma was murdered in the heart of Hebron. At the insistence of the settlers to react to the murder with a “proper Zionist response,” David Levy, then housing minister, prepared a blueprint for the reconstruction of Hebron’s Jewish Quarter that the Cabinet passed by a narrow vote. The Arabs responded with a general strike in the territories. Hebron Mayor Fahed Kawasmeh urged the local Arab population to boycott the settlers. In May 1980, six yeshiva students were gunned down near Beit Hadassah. Then-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman ordered the deportations of some local Arab leaders, including Kawasmeh. Several Arab-owned houses near Beit Hadassah were demolished and others were seized by the army “for security purposes.” The early 1980s were characterized by repeated incidents of violence in and around Hebron. Another yeshiva student, Aharon David Gross, was murdered in the center of Hebron. The response, again, was further expansion of the Jewish presence. By 1984, Hebron’s Jewish community had expanded farther, with the establishment of a settlement in Tel Rumeida, a hill overlooking downtown Hebron from the south. Hebron was often at the center of Israeli-Palestinian animosity during the six-year intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987. In February 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a local settler, opened fire inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Palestinian worshipers. At the time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin considered removing the Jewish presence from Hebron, a move that would have found some support in his Cabinet. Instead, Rabin directed his energies toward reviving the peace process, which had nearly been derailed entirely by Goldstein’s act. The violence he committed has come to be known as the Hebron massacre. On Jan. 1, 1997, an Israeli soldier, who was not posted in Hebron, came to the town and opened fire on an Arab market, wounding seven Palestinians. Noam Friedman said he wanted to thwart the efforts to transfer most of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule. Extremists among the Palestinians have thrown firebombs at Jewish targets almost daily in recent weeks. Given Hebron’s history, the potential of violence is ever-present. In their protracted negotiations, Israel and the Palestinian Authority sought an agreement that would work for both sides, and, they hope, would avert further bloodshed in the City of the Patriarchs. (JTA foreign editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)