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)