Retribution? house destroyed by the Israeli army suspectedly in response to the murdered Israeli teenagers in Hebron on July 1. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism