Hebron for Beginners

Hebron is again in the headlines. More than almost any other place, this divided city represents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a nutshell. Occupied by Israel in 1967, the Palestinian town saw its very heart taken over by Israeli settlers, whose presence there is illegal according to international law but supported by all Israeli governments. For the sake of 500 Israeli settlers, surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians, the Hebron Agreement of 1997 divided the city, with 80 percent of its area given to Palestinian policing, while the rest – in fact, the city center – remained in Israeli hands. The 30,000 Palestinian inhabitants of the center have been harassed on a daily basis by the settlers, backed by the Israeli army, which spread no less than 101 physical obstacles and 18 manned checkpoints around the Israeli-controlled area. In a clear process of ethnic cleansing, only a few thousand Palestinians still live in this part of the city (Miron Rapoport, Ha’aretz, Nov. 17, 2005).

Last week, Israel announced its intention to evict some 50 settlers who had illegally squatted Hebron’s wholesale market. The settlers of Hebron took to the streets, vandalizing and attacking mostly innocent Arabs but also Israeli soldiers and police in what an Israeli daily called “a Jewish Intifada.”

As usual, there are three versions about what’s going on in Hebron: the nationalist story, formulated in terms of Jews against Arab Gentiles and of long historical memory; the liberal story, phrased in terms of the State, Israelis, Palestinians, and the Rule of Law; and the reality, which is concealed somewhere in the small print.

The Nationalist Story

The nationalist account is anchored in the long history of Jews versus Gentiles. Its roots are in the days of Patriarch Abraham, but we’ll skip the mythic past and get to the present, which starts in 1929. Till then, the story goes, Jews and Arabs lived peacefully in Hebron, but on Aug. 23, 1929, the idyll ended when the Arabs butchered a huge number of Jews (the background and the precise number – 67 in this case – do not really matter, since they add up to all the other Jews killed in other places and times in what a great Jewish-American historian once called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history”).

The area disputed these days – Hebron’s wholesale market – belonged to the Hebronite Jewish Community since 1807, so that the presence there of its self-proclaimed successors, the settlers, is all but natural. Only the heartless, defeatist, un-Jewish government of Israel fails to see that and wants to uproot the Jews from their own houses and give them back to the offspring of the 1929 murderers, letting the killers take possession.

Since the settlers’ policy of “nonviolent resistance” to their “deportation” from Gaza and some West Bank settlements last August did not bear the desired fruits, now is the time to deter the government and the Israeli public by showing them that the price of any further eviction would be intolerably high. Unlike Arabs, Jews have almost every imaginable right in the Land of Israel – but not the right to evict other Jews from their homes, or to give Jewish land to Arabs.

The Liberal Story

The liberals have a shorter historical memory but a more legalist and humanist orientation. There is no denying that the wholesale market area belonged to Jews. However, in 1948, when the State of Israel was established, Israelis owned just a small percentage of the country’s area. Once most of the Palestinians left (or were driven out, as better-informed liberals would add), Israel used legal, pseudo-legal, and illegal measures to take over almost all Palestinian possessions: lands, houses, and property. Even Palestinians who fled their homes and stayed inside Israel were declared “present absentees” so that their property could be taken. If property rights are to be applied to the market in Hebron, they should be applied universally. Since Jews appropriated enormous amounts of Arab possessions, the property principle in Hebron would pave the way to Arab demands in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and in fact all over Israel.

Moreover, the wholesale market in Hebron was squatted by the settlers contrary even to Israeli law. The government admits that and repeatedly announces its intention to evict the squatters. Recently, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz made a commitment to the High Court of Justice to remove the settlers from the market by Feb. 15. The time has come. Sharon’s moderate government, now under his centrist successor Olmert, luckily understands these moral, legal, and political considerations and is at last willing to take action. The Hebron settlers are hooligans anyway, and the government should be praised for finally showing them who runs this country. It’s high time Hebron’s wholesale market is returned to its Palestinian merchants, another small but significant step in Israel’s long-overdue return to its 1967 borders.

The Reality

Two beautiful stories indeed; alas, both of them miss reality. Remember that the squatters could take over the wholesale market simply because the Palestinian merchants had been driven out. The market had been closed by Israel in 1994 as a confidence-destroying measure following the Goldstein massacre, in which a Jewish settler murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Patriarchs’ Tomb in Hebron (apropos “killing and taking possession”). In the Hebron Agreement of 1997, Israel pledged to return the market to the Palestinians and let it be reopened; a wall should have separated it from the settlers’ homes. However, Israel respects treaties only in extremely exceptional cases, and Hebron is not such a rare exception.

Both the nationalist and the liberal stories are wrong on the most crucial point: they both err to believe that Israel intends to give the market back to the Palestinians. Israel has nothing of the kind in mind. All Israel needs now is a good show that looks like the liberal fantasy; especially on the eve of the general elections, it is desirable to be portrayed as a resolute, moderate, and law-abiding government. But it’s the nationalist, colonialist fantasy that is being realized. In a combined effort of Israel’s government, police, army, and settlers, Israel had a major success in ethnically cleansing Hebron’s center of its Palestinian inhabitants. Reopening the market might revive trade at the heart of the city and reverse Israel’s achievement.

What’s the solution? Attentive Ha’aretz readers could find it out just days before the issue got to the headlines (Jan. 5, 2006):

“The Defense Ministry has terminated the lease with the Hebron municipality that enabled the Palestinian merchants to work in the city’s wholesale market. This means that the merchants from the wholesale market will not be able to return to their shops even if the Israel Defense Forces do evict the settlers squatting there.”

So that’s what Israel is up to: to get the High Court of Justice off its back, the State would simply replace the squatters by “authorized” settlers. The Civil Administration already commented that “The announcement was given the Hebron municipality in keeping with the state’s reaction to the petition to the High Court of Justice.” Indeed, Ha’aretz adds, “It is not clear whether the lease may be legally terminated, and it is possible that doing so will open a prolonged legal debate that could last years” – but this only means years in which the settlers and the army can drive out the rest of the Palestinians from the center of Hebron.

And why, you may wonder, do the settlers take to the street? In addition to the broader background of the young, radicalized generation of settlers, which feels humiliated after the disengagement and is eager to vandalize and terrorize, Ha’aretz gives a more specific reason:

“The settlers in Hebron did not reject the possibility of evacuating the squatters from the wholesale market if other Jewish settlers, who rent the shops and buildings legally, take their place. However, the settlers are demanding that the new families move in as soon as the old ones leave, to make sure the shops are inhabited at all times, […] but […] the settlers have not received a written compromise proposal to this effect.”

So all the actors get their fair show: the High Court can be portrayed as defender of justice. The settlers can be portrayed as fanatic zealots who lose in the end. The government can be portrayed as strong and pro-peace. And while the whole world salutes, Israel can further dispossess the Palestinians.


The success of the present fake show seems to exceed all expectations. The whole world interprets the swap of one group of settlers for another as a great step toward peace. Consequently, Ha’aretz‘s Hebrew edition of Jan. 17 quotes senior Israeli army officers saying that “they have not yet received instructions from the political echelon regarding when to evict the settlers from Hebron wholesale market. They estimate that it won’t happen before the Palestinian elections next week.” After all, if the world can be deceived so easily, why should Israel stop the game of tears?

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.