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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Turkey's turmoil should worry David Cameron

Splits in the Turkish government could play into the Brexiteers' hands.

While Britain focused on Sadiq v Zac and Cameron v Corbyn, in Turkey an even more dramatic contest was coming to a head. For weeks there has been growing speculation about a split between Ahmet Davutoğlu, the wonkish prime minster, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the macho, mercurial kingpin of Turkish politics. The two men have differed over a growing crackdown on freedom of expression, the conflict with Kurdish militants in Turkey’s south east and Erdoğan’s ambitions to strengthen his own power. Yesterday, a nervous-sounding Davutoğlu confirmed on live television that he would leave his post.

To outside observers, this might seem like a faraway power struggle between two men with unpronounceable names. But it matters for Britain and the impending EU referendum in two crucial ways.

1. It throws the EU-Turkey refugee deal into doubt

The controversial €6bn agreement to stem the flows to Europe was born of the strong relationship between Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not only does President Erdoğan have a far more ambivalent attitude towards the EU. He has also made Merkel’s life difficult by demanding the prosecution of a German comedian who penned a crude poem about him.

Though much criticised, the EU-Turkey deal has dramatically reduced the numbers being smuggled by sea to Greece. If it collapses, Europe could be heading for a repeat of last year’s crisis, when more than 800,000 people arrived on Greek shores. In Britain, such scenes will only fuel concern about migration - a key driver of anti-EU sentiment.

2. It plays into the narrative of the Brexit camp

Brexiteers have already sought to use Erdoğan’s growing illiberalism - and Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU - to win people over to their side. Turkey’s “palace coup” (as the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet called it) cements the image of Erdoğan as an all-powerful leader who will not tolerate dissent. The accusations against Turkey are often ill-informed and tinged with Islamophobia. But they are clearly seen as effective by both sides in the referendum campaign. Only this week, David Cameron was forced to distance himself from his previous enthusiasm for Turkish accession, insisting that the prospect would not be on the cards “for decades.”

For now, Erdoğan’s intentions towards the EU deal are unclear. Perhaps he would like to take credit for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the Schengen Zone (but not the UK) - an attractive perk promised in return for Turkey’s cooperation. But it is just as easy to imagine him watching it collapse before railing against the perfidious west.

Either way, there will be nerves in Brussels, Berlin and London. Diplomats see the president as a much more difficult partner than Davutoğlu. “Erdoğan has to be handled very carefully,” said one official. “If Jean-Claude Juncker says something too blunt, who knows what will happen?”

Turkey still has several hurdles to clear before visa-free travel is approved. Ankara has made clear that it will not hold up its end of the bargain if the promise is not fulfilled. With the deadline for implementation set for the last day in June, the deal could begin imploding towards the end of next month. That, David Cameron will surely note with a gulp, would be just in time for the EU referendum.