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November 3, 2015 8:28 am

Hebron and the Potential for Israeli-Arab Coexistence

avatar by Pini Dunner

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The site where an Israeli soldier was stabbed and a Palestinian assailant shot dead in Hebron, on Oct. 29, 2015. Photo: Israel Police Spokesperson's Unit.

The site where an Israeli soldier was stabbed and his Palestinian assailant shot dead in Hebron, on Oct. 29, 2015. Photo: Israel Police Spokesperson’s Unit.

I am currently in Israel with my wife, and a friend of ours who lives here called to ask if we would like to join the thousands of pilgrims who visit Hebron for Shabbat Chayei Sarah. It is not strictly an “anniversary” weekend, but seeing as this parsha (Torah portion) describes how Abraham purchased the Hebron burial plot for his wife, Sarah, the Chayei Sarah weekend has become a semi-official annual date for Jews to celebrate our 3,500-year history in the city.

Although we are not going to take up our friend’s invitation, I do feel it is appropriate for me to share some thoughts about Hebron, particularly because the Jewish community of Hebron is often falsely portrayed as an incendiary enclave of die-hard Arab-hating Jews living in stolen Arab buildings and guarded by IDF soldiers who outnumber them 5-to-1.

To say that this is a distortion is an understatement. In 1998, international negotiators toiled for months to come up with a solution that would enable both Jews and Arabs to cohabit in Hebron. The discussions resulted in an agreement called the Wye River Memorandum, which was ratified by the UN and remains in force. This agreement means that the Jews of Hebron don’t live in an “illegal settlement” and are not “occupiers.” They are the legal residents of a Jewish neighborhood in Hebron, recognized as such by the UN, and — officially, at least — the Palestinian Authority. It is, in fact, the only place where such arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians have been finalized.

So why are the Jews in Hebron portrayed as a provocation? The answer is simple. Because despite signing the agreement, Palestinian leaders have never accepted the reality it created, knowing if they do that they will be forced to accept similar final-status compromises all over the country, resulting in Jews being allowed to remain in Palestinian areas, an outcome they deem unacceptable. Arab hostility to the Jews in Hebron is therefore constantly incited by political and religious leaders, in the hope that the world will ultimately force Israel to remove all Jews from among the Palestinians, and even from Hebron.

More level-headed Arabs at the grass roots have very different ideas. Some months ago I read about Sheikh Farid Al-Jabari. He is the patriarch of one of the largest Arab clans in Hebron, and is very friendly with the head of the Hebron Jewish community, Noam Arnon. Sheikh Al-Jabari passionately believes that Jews and Arabs will eventually live in harmony, not just in Hebron, but all over the Land of Israel. He is not interested in a “peace process” or in political or religious movements that champion the Arab cause. He thinks they are an utter waste of time. Instead, he is interested in creating facts on the ground that enable Jews to live with Arabs, and he will talk to anyone who will help make this happen.

Which brings me to the heavy IDF presence in Hebron. Firstly, the facts. The number of soldiers in Hebron is nowhere near the exaggerated numbers reported in the media. For most of the year, there are around 600 IDF soldiers stationed there, to protect the 700 Jewish residents of Hebron and the 7,500 residents of nearby Kiryat Arba. If I have my math right, local residents outnumber soldiers by more than 13-to-1, which is not soldiers outnumbering residents by 5-to-1.  And let me say this: I completely agree with those who say that the military presence in Hebron is awful. They are absolutely right. There should be no need for soldiers in Hebron, or anywhere on the streets in Israel — which would of course be possible if there was no danger of Arab attacks against Jews. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we could beat our swords into ploughshares?

Unfortunately, Jews who live in Hebron are in constant danger, and not just from stabbings. On many occasions in the past, Arabs have used high caliber rifles to shoot into the Jewish neighborhood, resulting in injuries and fatalities. There have been bombings as well. Where are the human rights organizations when Jews are getting attacked and killed? Why do they protest when Arabs suffer and say nothing about the Arabs who cause suffering to the legal Jewish residents of Hebron? Surely Jews should also be allowed to conduct their lives free of any military presence, or the inconveniences of restriction of movement? Shouldn’t the UN, instead of criticizing Israel for its military presence in Hebron, be working with people like Sheikh Al-Jabari and Noam Arnon to find ways of reducing local tensions by increasing harmony between Arab and Jewish residents? After all, isn’t that what they are about?

In any event, the image of Hebron Jews as fanatics is a complete misrepresentation. A few years ago, I went on the Shabbat Chayei Sarah Hebron pilgrimage and stayed in the local yeshiva, Yeshivat Shavei Hevron. This fantastic institute of Torah study has a student body of 250 and is a model of respectful and respectable religious Zionism. It is housed in the ‘Romano Building’, an Ottoman era structure that was built for the Jewish community in 1876 by the Turkish philanthropist Avraham Haim Romano — in other words, not a stolen Arab building. The yeshiva is committed to a moderate worldview that demands complete adherence to the laws of the state. It is a shining example of the kind of sensible approach that defies the ‘fanatic’ label in every possible way.

Particularly now, as the repellant “knife intifada” continues to unfold, we should highlight the situation in Hebron. Those people who claim to be seeking solutions should be reminded of this ancient city, and be informed that the solutions they claim to be seeking are already enshrined in an agreement recognized by the international community — an agreement that has been consistently ignored by the Palestinian leadership. Whatever happens, Jews must never leave Hebron again.

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  • Cop hurt in Hebron car-ramming still in critical condition

    Wednesday attack left Border Police officer, 20, with severe head wound; a second officer lightly injured

    I am sorry for the cop and wish him a fast recovery! He and his comrades are scarifying their life protecting self-righteous Jews to have a nice Shabbat in Hebron.

  • Jack

    Palestinian leadership has been non-existent for so long, (How long is it?), that to expect any change in their humanity toward Israeli’s or Palestinian conduct lead by any of their leadership is like waiting for the second coming of Christ, (also known as ‘the Holiest of the Holies’!, a very famous rabbi, you should know!).
    Not that abu Mazen, (Abbas), seems to!

  • Myron Slater

    As usual, the UN is controlled by its Arab members. If only the UN lived up to its original premise, The Truth!

  • Why is it necessary that 400-600 Jews are living beside about 30-35000 Palestinian Arabs in Hebron? I think if needed Jews will be able to enter the Jewish site Machpela. But Jews living in Hebron?

    To me its not a question if this is legal or not, it’s a matter of how many Jewish lives is it worth. It will not be possible to change Hebron into a Jewish city and the Arab inhabitants to not like us.

    Settlers living in Hebron and Kirjat Arba are mainly extremist orthodox Jews plus about 200 Jeshiwah students. They represent a tiny minority and do not contribute to the well being of our Jewish State Israel. To protect them costs a lot and they do not pay for it. It’s the Israeli taxpayers money. Furthermore, our soldiers, which are required more urgently in other places, are tied up in Hebron and Kirjat Arba.

    Do I understand correctly that for the settlers behind it was a personal and political matter, not even a religious matter? A personal matter of stubborn Jews and of a Rabbi with a license to kill? Is it really worth it, this dafkah attitude?

    PS: to avoid misunderstandings, I am Jewish, Israeli and Zionist.

    • Ryan Bellerose

      Alexander Sheiner, you may be jewish, you may even be an Israeli, but you are no zionist.

      first, Jews live in Hevron because its their inherent right as indigenous people, second they are nothing like you described.

      I suggest you go spend a shabbot in Hevron, in fact I wish every single jewish person would because it would help you remember who you are and what your people have overcome to gain self determination on your ancestral land, something a lot of you so called zionists have forgotten.

      You want a scapegoat look for one outside of your own people struggling to live somewhere they believe is important, and in the future, if you honestly believe you are a zionist, then educate yourself because your ignorance is very damaging to the zionist cause.

      • I am simply expressing my personal opinion and view, its my freedom of thought and expression. So there is no need to be aggressive against my person and for allegations and just don’t think you know everything better.

        I certainly hold on to my own opinion, because I have my own experiences. Just remove the froth from your mouth.

    • Pini Dunner

      You are wrong on several counts.

      Firstly, if we abandon Hebron, we may as well abandon Israel. The military protection of Jews and Israel’s commitment and resolve in this matter is closely monitored by our enemies. If the Arabs see that we make decisions based on ‘cost’ and considerations of whether it is worth it, they will begin to create situations in other areas of Israel to precipitate evacuations etc. Vigorously protecting Hebron is protecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

      The proof for this thesis is Gaza, where 8000 Jews were evacuated because of the ‘price tag’. Abandoning Gaza was a grave mistake, not just because it destroyed Jewish lives, but because it led to an arrogance on the part of the enemies of Israel, who saw a retreat and detected weakness. I personally would not have been comfortable to live in Gaza, and perhaps feel the same way about Hebron. But that does not diminish their strategic importance for our future sagety in Israel, and everywhere else. I wish I had the courage to live in those places, and I admire everyone who does. May God protect them, so that we remain protected.

      You are utterly wrong when you say that Hebron and Kiryat Arba residents “do not contribute to the well being of our Jewish State Israel.” On the contrary. They are on the frontline of the fight for the safety of Jews all over Israel.

      Secondly, Jews in Hebron are NOT SETTLERS, in case you didn’t get the message. The Arabs AGREED for them to live there and signed the agreement. In which case, to call them settlers is not just wrong, it is antisemitic propaganda.

      Thirdly, I reject your characterization of Jews living in Hebron and Kiryat Arba as extremists. Why? Because they are doing something that you don’t agree with? I think that those who are against the idea of Jews living in Hebron are extremists – extremist appeasers. If Hebron is ours, and we are entitled to live there, how can it be extremist to exercise that entitlement? Incidentally, I have a 102-year-old great aunt who lives in Kiryat Arba. She is a benign, wonderful matriarch, who could not be more removed from the word ‘extremist’. Please do not generalize. It is disingenuous and insulting, as well as insidious.

      • You need a lot of word to explain why Jews must live in Hebron. I am absolutely unconvinced. I am simply expressing my personal opinion and view, its my freedom of thought and expression. So there is no need to be aggressive against my person and please NO allegations and just don’t think you know everything better because you are a Rabbi.

        I certainly hold on to my own opinion, because I have my own experiences.

        Nice vacation in the Jewish State Israel.

  • Pinchas Baram

    okay, so WHERE is Sheik Jabari– is he alive and well, and if so, is he able, as a Moslem patriarch, able to speak his mind, restore order, speak to the media?? Can someone answer??