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

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt