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.
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
The Nationalist Story
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
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.
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
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
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?