Retribution? house destroyed by the Israeli army suspectedly in response to the murdered Israeli teenagers in Hebron on July 1. Photo: Getty
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Death comes to Hebron, the birthplace of Judaism

Hebron is the city of Abraham, the patriarch from whom all Jews, Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians claim descent. It is the emotional heart of the world’s most intractable conflict.

It was no surprise that the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers who went missing in the West Bank on 12 June should have been found near the town of Halhul. Nowhere in the West Bank is beyond the reach of the Israeli army, but it does not permanently control Halhul, which lies at the northern entrance to the city of Hebron.

In theory, Halhul is part of the area ceded to the Palestinian Authority under the Hebron accord of 1997, which divided the city into two areas of administrative control. In practice, the Israeli soldiers who serve in Hebron will tell you they go where they want to go, without regard to lines on a map. Halhul is a convenient place to control access to Hebron: the soldiers can shut down the city by swinging a metal barrier across the main road, or set up a checkpoint to monitor the traffic. In the relatively peaceful years between 2008 and 2011, when I visited Hebron often, I used to spend hours sitting in queues of stalled cars in Halhul, waiting for the soldiers to let us pass, yet sooner or later they would retreat to their bases further south, around the Old City of Hebron, where the settlers have made their homes.

Hebron, which lies 25 miles south of Jerusalem, is the only place in the West Bank where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side. Most of the settlements are built on hilltops, at one remove from the local population, but the group of messianic Israelis who returned to Hebron after the Six Day War of 1967 chose to live in the heart of the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. They were not there by chance: Hebron is the city of Abraham, the biblical patriarch from whom all Jews, Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians claim descent. It is the birthplace of the Jewish people, and the geographical, mythical and emotional heart of the world’s most intractable conflict. The settlers’ critics – who include most Israelis – accuse them of eroding the faint prospects for the “two-state solution” by encroaching on one of the few remaining enclaves in which Palestinians aspire to an autonomous existence. The settlers say they are merely continuing the work of their Zionist forebears by reclaiming Jewish land – and that there is nowhere more Jewish than Hebron.

Regardless of the legitimacy of their cause, the consequences of their presence are plain. The settlers have retreated into fortified compounds in the vicinity of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham’s family is said to be interred, and many of their Palestinian neighbours have left. Acts of violence committed by both sides have corroded the city and undermined its claim to be the wellspring of a shared faith. Yet until recently there was a mingling of sorts around Hebron; in other parts of the West Bank, the separation of settlers from Palestinians is so complete that they even travel by different roads. Yet Route 60, the so-called Way of the Patriarchs, which runs down the spine of the Judean Hills from Jerusalem to Hebron, is open to all. The road is fortified by armoured walls and nets and lined with checkpoints, yet you’d always see off-duty Israeli soldiers or Orthodox Jews in traditional dress waiting at roadside hitching spots, such as the one near Gush Etzion where the teenagers were kidnapped.

The photographs of lines of Israeli soldiers winding through the rocky ravines and olive groves of the Hebron Hills signalled the scale of the operation undertaken to find them. The city and its environs are not only home to Israeli fanatics: they are also Hamas’s power base in the West Bank, though the Islamist group has been effectively suppressed here since 2007, when the Palestinian factions descended into civil war.

Since 2007 the Israelis have attempted to close down all organisations in the city with any connection to Hamas, including charitable groups, leaving the day-to-day task of suppressing its activities to the Palestinian Authority. But the Israeli policy of devolved policing did not outlast the signing in April of a Palestinian unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, and the murder of the three boys led to a rapid escalation of the military campaign: Israeli jets attacked Gaza and Hamas responded by saying this action “would open the gates of hell”. In the aftermath of the latest unsuccessful attempt to make a lasting peace, the region is descending into violence and recrimination again, and we are brought back to the dismal example of Hebron – a city that ought to illuminate the ideal of fraternal co-operation, but which only shows how distant the prospect has become. 

Edward Platt is the author of “The City of Abraham: History, Myth and Memory – a Journey Through Hebron” (Picador, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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