Children of Abraham v sons of Ibrahim

On a visit to human rights groups in Israel and the West Bank, Sigrid Rausing senses a growing tensi

There is silence on the scrubby hills overlooking Bethlehem. The hills are dotted with cylindrical Israeli guard towers, looking down into the valleys. Tiny fields of olive trees line the roads; the disputed areas, here at least, are so small. We are just above the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank. It is deceptively peaceful, almost somnolent. Sparrows dive in and out of the glittering razor wire on top. From the hill you can see how close it is to the Palestinian homes of Bethlehem, how comfortably distant from Israeli homes.

Most of the land in Israel is owned by the state. The uneven distribution of facilities, from sewerage to education, remains a problem. In addition to communal disadvantages, the privileges that flow from army service, such as subsidised education and housing, are also denied to individual Palestinians, who do not serve in the army. Hebrew remains the language of teaching in the universities, which affects Palestinian students. And yet many Palestinians in Israel fear that, in the eventual peace deal, their villages will be traded for land in the West Bank with Jewish settlements, depriving them of Israeli citizenship.

Persecution, the tragedy of exile and the wish to return to the land of the forefathers are part of the DNA of Jewish culture. These are now clashing with another strand of the culture which is about social revolution, human rights, equality and secularism. The conflict is no longer simply about Palestinians v Jews, nor about the ultra-Orthodox v the secular; it is also a bitter cultural civil war between beleaguered human rights organisations - the remnants of the Israeli left - and the secular right.

This is not about Zionism. If you are a Jew living in Israel you are, for better or worse, a Zionist. But human rights activists, along with many Israelis, remember the original dream of Israel as a refuge for all Jews and a democracy where no one is discriminated against on the grounds of race or religion. They remember the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel

will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

They believe in keeping Israel accountable to its origins and ideals, even in the face of war and terrorism.

People on the right are concerned with security, listen to the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world and take seriously the openly anti-Semitic charter of Hamas. Liberals, by contrast, listen to Palestinian narratives of oppression and discrimination. Conservatives believe that the forces that want to destroy Israel and drive the Jews into the sea may prevail; liberals believe that peaceful coexistence is possible. Conservatives believe that liberals co-operate with the forces that conspire to bring about Israel's destruction; liberals believe that conservatives exploit Israel's exceptionalism, particularly the memory of the Holocaust, in the name of security. Liberals abhor racism and oppression, while many conservatives, especially supporters of Avigdor Lieberman, now believe in permanent separation. For conservatives, external criticism of Israeli policies is always a sign of anti-Semitism or self-hatred. They also increasingly argue that internal criticism of Israel delegitimises the nation, undermining Israel's very right to exist.

I am here to visit the Israeli grantees of my charitable foundation. Israeli human rights organisations are almost entirely funded from abroad. To a greater or lesser extent, that is true of all Israeli institutions, and the country does indeed have an affluent sheen about it that speaks of generous grants from funding bodies. For the human rights organisations, however, foreign funding has led to a certain disconnection from Israelis themselves. Advocates are turning towards the international audience rather than the domestic one, to English rather than Hebrew. As a result, they have become somewhat isolated within Israel.

Yet they have achieved results. Palestinian detainees are no longer hooded or put into stress positions, or threatened with the arrest and maltreatment of relatives. Their shackles now have to be at least 50cm long, rather than 30cm. Detainee maltreatment is carefully monitored by NGOs.

The Supreme Court, too, has helped with many favourable rulings in cases brought by human rights groups. The ban on torture and the improvements to detainee conditions are sometimes used as arguments against human rights organisations, on the grounds that they are "unnecessary". The internal debate is combative, mirroring in many ways the American debate on torture in the Bush era. Many Israeli hawks are American-born (though, now, probably more of them are Russian), and many American hawks are deeply engaged in Israel.

We visit Hebron with one of the organisations we support. In Kiryat Arba, the settler suburb, we stop off at the Meir Kahane Memorial Park. There is the tomb of Baruch Goldstein, who killed dozens of unarmed Palestinians in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in 1994. Israeli soldiers looked on, bewildered and motionless, until finally he was killed by members of the public.

Goldstein, born in Brooklyn, joined the ultra-nationalist Kahane's Jewish Defence League and lived in the Hebron settlement. The Hebrew inscription on his tomb states:

Here lies buried the holy one Dr Baruch Kappel Goldstein . . .
He gave his soul for the people of Israel, for the Torah and for the land. Clean of hand and pure of heart. Murdered while protecting the Nation of God.

There is a shoddy bus shelter next to the little park. The streets are empty.

In 1929, 67 Jews were killed in Hebron, ending Jewish life in the city. The settlers started to reoccupy Hebron in the late 1970s, house by house. Kiryat Arba now has some 600 inhabitants, guarded by 1,200 soldiers. Hebron itself is divided into two sectors - H1, home to about 180,000 Palestinians, and H2, the four square kilometres at the heart of city, which is under direct occupation.

There, on the narrow streets around Abraham's tomb, all shops are closed and sealed. People still live on the first and second floors. Every window is covered with a light metal mesh. The Palestinians' laws prevent them from selling their houses to the settlers, so the inhabitants of H2 are financially locked in. Houses are sometimes abandoned when owners die or move away. Settlers drape Israeli flags on them - another victory for Zionism, another (self-imposed) defeat for the Palestinians.

There are a few settler quarters in H2 as well. They are affluent and orderly, in contrast to the dismal Palestinian streets. On some streets, Israelis can drive and Palestinians cannot. In some places they have to walk on the other side of concrete barriers. Israeli soldiers, armed with machine-guns, complain only about the settlers, who often try to provoke fights with the Palestinians.

Our grantee has handed out video cameras to Palestinian families to record settler attacks, which are many and frequent. If there is a fight, the soldiers will step in - the post-Holocaust ideology of the Israeli state mandates that Jewish lives must always be protected. Without that protection, there would be guerrilla warfare in the West Bank.

We chat with a soldier in a watchtower. There is a bag of rubbish on the floor: chocolate wrappers, cans and paper, the detritus of the young. Outside, Breaking the Silence, a group dedicated to soldier testimony of abuse of Palestinians in the occupied territories, is taking a group of visitors around. Next to them is a conservative group, showing the settlements. The atmosphere is tense; the soldiers are watching in case they clash. I ask if the liberal groups ever attack the conservative ones, and our guide laughs and shakes his head.

Confrontation in Israel is now the domain of the right, like the young activists of the neo-Zionist Im Tirtzu who recently targeted the progressive New Israel Fund with posters depicting its Israeli director with a horn in her forehead. A few streets away, settlers have painted naive scenes of Jewish life on a wall, political graffiti minimising the oppressive force of the occupation. The captions are in English:

Living together
A pious community
Destruction 1929
Liberation, return, rebuilding 1967
“The children have returned to their own borders." cf Jer 31:17

We visit the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, where Isaac, Jacob and their wives are also interred. Herod built a memorial temple over the tombs.

Pieces of paper - prayers - are thrown into the sealed rooms of the tombs. Birds fly in and out; padlocks seal the doors. Children, tourists, Orthodox men and women talk comfortably, drifting from tomb to tomb. A man sleeps on a plastic chair. I look into Abraham's tomb. Diagonally across from me, a Palestinian woman simultaneously looks through the bars of her identical window; Abraham is locked in between the two sides.

Later, we visit the mayor of a Palestinian village on the sea. His family accounts for 40 per cent of the population. He seems a little sleepy, talking about education, culture and sports, but without any enthusiasm - those words represent grants, and, like with Potemkin façades, the reality behind them is uncertain. This is the poorest village in Israel, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and next to the wealthy Jewish village of Caesarea, where Prime Minister Netanyahu has a weekend house. The inhabitants of Caesarea built a sand barrier between the two villages.

The mayor's dream is a €50m holiday home development on the beach, funded by the European Union, temporarily stopped because of ownership issues. I can't imagine a holiday resort on this littered beach, despite the blue sea. We stand there, deep in thought, when suddenly an Arab horse canters by, and then another - fleeting images of Palestinian freedom and defiance.

The saddest thing we saw was not Hebron, or the partly bulldozed Palestinian cemetery in the Mount Carmel National Park, or the barrier wall. It was a prison outside Tel Aviv that houses asylum-seekers. Most of the male detainees are Africans, lounging on narrow beds in fairly open conditions. Some have walked across the Egyptian border. There is a ping-pong table in the open-air common-room; a cockroach crawls along a wall.

The female detainees are Asian and eastern European. A Ukrainian woman is thought to have been trafficked, but can't be helped unless she says so herself - she was picked up from a brothel, and is not saying. Her grey, expressionless face and bleached hair are haunting. But the saddest thing is the children's ward. Two boys are locked in a cell. They look about 12; younger than that and they are detained in boarding schools. The locking up is, I believe, temporary, like the stench from the garbage that is being removed as we stand there. I don't know where they were from - Sudan, perhaps. But the sight of them, the same age as my own son, was indescribably sad.

Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta and founder of the Sigrid Rausing Trust.