'The Possibility of Escalation Is Always There'

Tense days in Hebron

A protest in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 4, 2017
A protest in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 4, 2017 (Mussa Qawasma / Reuters)

Last year was a violent one in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. In March 2016, video footage filmed by a Palestinian and released by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem showed Elor Azaria, a 20-year-old Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, shooting an incapacitated Palestinian attacker in an execution-style killing, in the city’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood. In late June 2016, a Palestinian stabbed a 13-year-old Jewish girl to death while she slept in her bed in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement contiguous to Hebron. A Hamas terrorist fired on a settler family driving south of the city, killing the father, and injuring the mother and children in early July. (In response, the IDF imposed harsh travel restrictions for the roughly 900,000 Palestinians in the Hebron district, and cut off all outside access to the nearby al-Fawar refugee camp for 26 days.) Stabbing and ramming attacks by Palestinians in the area continued over the fall; in many cases, the IDF killed the assailants.

Then, in early January 2017, in a divisive verdict, a military court headed by three judges found Azaria guilty of manslaughter. The verdict exacerbated tensions between the IDF and right-wing Israeli politicians who excoriated the military for pursuing the case in the first place. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and other Israeli politicians, have even called for Azaria’s pardon. When the verdict came down, the Netanyahu government was still reeling from the Obama administration’s decision in late December to abstain from vetoing a UN Security Council resolution reaffirming long-standing international consensus: that Israel’s settlement-building in the territories it has occupied since 1967 is illegal under international law. (Historically, U.S. officials have massaged the issue by calling settlements “obstacles to peace” and refrained from explicitly referencing their illegality.) Several days later, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a speech on Israel and Palestine also largely recapitulating U.S. policy in the region. Again, the Netanyahu government howled in protest.

Back in 1995, few could have predicted such a rift between the Unites States and its closest ally in the Middle East. In that year, the United States helped broker the Oslo II accord, in which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) formally agreed to the terms an independent Palestinian state by 1999. The agreement also created the Palestinian Authority (PA), and split the West Bank into three separate zones: Area A, which includes almost all of the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank but only 18 percent of the territory, governed by the PA; B, where the PA has jurisdiction over civil affairs and the IDF retains control over all security matters; and C, where Israel has total authority over all civil and military affairs. (The commander of the Palestinian Security forces in Jenin in Area A lamented to me how IDF incursions into his territory undermine his authority in the eyes of his own people.) When I travelled through the West Bank several months ago, it was clear that the hallmarks of the occupation—its roadblocks and checkpoints, the separation fence and barrier wall (which both prevent terrorist attacks and asphyxiate Palestinian life), the nighttime incursions by the IDF into cities and refugee camps, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that makes daily life for Palestinians onerous—had taken on a perverse air of normalcy. Indeed, in the eyes of many right-wing Israelis, and perhaps a not-insubstantial number of Americans, this regime is now regarded as sustainable.

But even this system pales to what you’ll find in Hebron. Hebron, with its population of over 200,000 Palestinians and under 1,000 Jews, is governed differently than the rest of the West Bank. According to the terms of the 1997 Hebron Protocol, Israel has instituted a kind of internal partition, under which 80 percent of the city is under full control of the PA, and the other 20 percent under IDF administration; Palestinians living under the IDF are subject to military law, while Israelis are subject to the normal civil code. When I asked a senior Israeli military official last week about the IDF’s efforts to prevent violence by settlers against Hebron’s Palestinian community, he told me that there has been “a major effort” to turn issues of settler violence over to the Israeli police. “They’re the body that has the legal authority to act against the radical settlers,” the official said.

Hebron is also home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second-holiest site in Judaism; it includes both a Jewish section and a Muslim section, called the Ibrahimi Mosque. In February of 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a radical settler from a settlement abutting Hebron, walked into the Ibrahimi Mosque, took out an assault rifle, and opened fire, killing 29 people and injuring 125, all Muslims. Deadly riots between Jews and Muslims followed, and the IDF closed Shuhada Street, formerly the main commercial thoroughfare in the city, connecting the tiny Jewish quarter to the tomb.

On my visit to Hebron, I found that Shuhada Street remains closed, its businesses boarded up and emptied out. Palestinians are barred from accessing the area entirely, or from even walking down the street. The IDF maintains a militarized presence in this part of Hebron, protecting the ultra-religious Jews living in the city center, for whom proximity and access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs is paramount.

The problem is that events in Hebron tend to reverberate far beyond the city. In June 2014, Hamas operatives from Hebron kidnapped three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking in the area; they were later found buried in a shallow grave in a field near the city. The IDF, searching for the abducted men, began a violent crackdown in the West Bank, arresting hundreds. Hamas fired rockets from Gaza in response. A full-scale war in Gaza, short but furious, broke out between Israel and Hamas. Over 2,100 Palestinians were killed, as were 73 Israelis.

The city now teeters on a very sharp edge. Hebron has been the source of many of the so-called “copycat” attacks that have occurred in the West Bank and Israel over the past year, the senior Israel military official told me. In fact, not only has Hebron experienced the largest number of terrorist attacks of any city in Israel and the West Bank during the period; it is also home to the largest number of individuals who have committed attacks elsewhere within the West Bank and Israel over the past year, the official said. “The possibility of escalation is always there,” the military official said, especially because of Hamas’s “unique” level of strength in the city.

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For hundreds of years, Jews have had a small, nearly uninterrupted, presence in Hebron. In August 1929, amid rising tensions between Jewish and Arab communities across British Mandate Palestine, rumors spread that Jews were planning on demolishing the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, in order to build the Third Temple. (The Temple Mount, where the mosque now stands, is where the two great Jewish temples were once located.) On August 24, 1929, a vicious pogrom broke out in Hebron. A mob of Arabs traveled house-to-house, killing 67 Jews and wounding scores, wiping out the city’s Jewish community. It would not recover until Passover, 1979, when a group of Jews—guaranteed implicit protection by the IDF, which began occupying Hebron, along with the rest of the West Bank, in 1967—visited the city and refused to leave, overcoming initial government opposition to their presence. They have lived in Hebron ever since.

The Hebron History Museum, located in the heart of IDF-administered Hebron, dedicates an entire room to the massacre. Photos of men with pleading eyes and stumps for hands line the walls. On the day I visited the museum, Tzipi Schissel, the museum’s curator, wore a light-blue head-wrap in the Orthodox style, and socks under her sandals. On my tour of the museum, she explained that the evidence of an ancient Jewish Hebron justifies the current Jewish settlement, and militates against current Israeli policy, which severely curtails Jewish resettlement in the urban core.

Schissel’s family was in Hebron in 1929. She recounted stories of the cruelty of local Arabs and the British soldiers who subsequently occupied the city. Hebron is an integral part of Israel, Schissel said. “When you go to buy something here,” she asked us, “and you look at the currency, what state does it say you’re in?” (How a Palestinian might feel about buying groceries with shekels, the Israeli currency, did not seem to cross her mind.)

When we entered the section of the museum devoted to the 1929 massacre, Schissel grew quiet. Years ago, she said, a Palestinian man broke into her family’s home in Hebron. He plunged a knife into her father over and over, and she watched him bleed to death. Still, she said, she’ll never leave Hebron. It struck me that this ghastly tragedy hadn’t caused her family to flee, or question why her community chose to live under duress; in fact, it only seemed to stiffen her resolve to stay. “The greater is one’s yearning for an attachment to Eretz Yisrael,” wrote Rabbi Kook, Schissel’s great-grandfather, “the purer his thoughts become, for they then live in the air of Eretz Yisrael, which sustains everyone who longs for the Land.”

After I left the museum, I walked down Shuhada Street, toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Israeli flags swelled in the distance. Hundreds of French-speaking Jews, part of a group called “Israel Is Forever,” marched down the street, bellowing into bullhorns. They stopped near the tomb and recited the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew. I have heard, and recited, this prayer hundreds of times, always as a dirge. Here, it sounded like a battle cry.

The president of Israel Is Forever, Jacques Kupfer, is a prominent far-right French-Jewish commentator, member of the Board of Governors for the Jewish Agency, and co-president of World Likud, the international wing of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party. On Facebook, Kupfer consistently referred to former President Barack Obama exclusively as “Hussein Obama.” His group says it opposes “any further partition plan in favor of a non-existent people and a future terrorist state.

Later in the day, Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister in the current Likud-led government, spoke at a special rally held by Israel is Forever. She encouraged French Jews—who have been fleeing Europe because of increasing anti-Semitism—to make aliyah, or resettle in Israel. Hotovely also does not believe in a Palestinian state, and has called for the wholesale annexation of the West Bank. The protesters gathered at the steps leading to the magnificent tomb. The bellicose crowd, emboldened by the protection of the IDF soldiers, chanted “Hev-ron! Hev-ron! Hev-ron! Hev-ron!” Their vision was so narrowly focused on the tomb that they seemed not to see the sprawling Palestinian city that surrounds them.

That same evening, IDF soldiers entered al-Fawar, a nearby Palestinian refugee camp, on a mission to confiscate contraband weaponry. Clashes broke out, with Palestinians throwing rocks and IEDs. The IDF responded with rubber bullets and live fire, injuring 35 and killing one.

After visiting the tomb, I entered Hebron’s historic Old City, first passing through a checkpoint consisting of two metal cages connected by a secure passageway, guarded by tense Ethiopian and Mizrahi IDF soldiers in an enclosed booth. The souk, or marketplace, in Hebron is typically claustrophobic, a warren of narrow alleyways and petit-bourgeois shopkeepers. It begins one street over—and a world away—from Shuhada Street. In many cases, the windows of the buildings you see from the Jewish-controlled side, fortified by mesh and metal bars, actually belong to the Palestinian families who live and work in the old city. They cannot access their own balconies, or open their own kitchen windows. And, if walking through the souk, you glance skyward, you will see heavy netting above you. Much of it sags with the weight of garbage thrown by Israeli settlers, in an attempt, local Palestinians say, to intimidate residents, and make shopkeepers’ lives impossible.

Palestinians in the West Bank feel that the occupation’s ultimate aim is to drive them out of the territories. For some, merely refusing to leave one’s homeland is a way of rejecting Israeli colonialism. “My presence here in Hebron is a form of resistance,” Mohammed Mohtaseb, a Palestinian tour guide, told me. For all the conspiratorial talk I heard from Palestinians—prominent Fatah Party members, high-ranking PA bureaucrats, and local shopkeepers alike, told me that ISIS is a CIA-funded front group—there is a powerful logic to this line of thinking.

“I don’t think you can actually equate the situation in Hebron to any other city in the world,” Husam Zomlot, Strategic Affairs Advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas (and the next PLO Ambassador to the United States, according to recent reports), told me recently. “The overall situation, over years and years, is unbearable.” In recent months, Zomlot said, “Hebron has been the main theater of clashes and confrontations, of disproportionate use of force by Israel. The numbers speak for themselves: youth who have been shot and killed in Hebron are, in relative terms, the largest number after Jerusalem.”

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In any future peace deal, the IDF would likely be required to uproot over 75,000 Jews from the West Bank, some of them religious ideologues, from their homes near some of the holiest places in their faith. In this equation, the settlers of Hebron seem unlikely to voluntarily quit their second-holiest site. This is the paradox: The Jews of Hebron cannot leave, but neither can they stay. If the IDF withdraws—as it must under any future peace deal—the radical settlers of Hebron and elsewhere could face another massacre, another 1929. If the IDF stays, the two-state solution, threatened by settlements like Kiryat Arba, will lose whatever residual viability it may yet possess.

Although Zomlot is hopeful that Hebron’s could help facilitate a political solution—Hebronites, he said, actually have the most to gain from such a deal, given that the city is the West Bank’s economic engine—he is pessimistic about its short-term prospects. “Nothing suggests that things will improve over the next year,” he said. Hebron, Gaza, Jerusalem, and most Palestinian cities are “sitting on a ticking bomb. But Hebron is the most immediate ticking bomb.”

The longer Israel occupies places like Hebron, the more difficult it will be to dislodge the settlers who reside there. And the longer the settlers are ensconced, the likelier it is that terrorist groups like Hamas will declare all-out war upon them, as well as Israeli civilians inside the pre-1967 borders. And the greater the perception of the threat that such groups pose, the less likely Israeli troops will be to withdraw from the West Bank highlands that give Israel its strategic depth.

In December 2016, then President-elect Trump named David Friedman, a far-right extremist, as his next Ambassador to Israel. Trump has also promised—threatened—to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly charged move that could itself set off violence. This month, Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, endorsed this policy during her Senate confirmation hearings. Jordan, America’s closest Arab partner in the region, has called such a move “a red line” with potentially “catastrophic implications,” according to the Associated Press. Senior Palestinian officials have even said that if such a move occurs, the PLO will revoke its official recognition of Israel, a cornerstone of the Oslo Accords. Moreover, without the moderating influence of the Obama administration, provocative settlement construction may now accelerate. In fact, after soon after President Trump took office, the Netanyahu government announced building approval for 2,500 new housing units in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, in Hebron, storm clouds continue to gather. The question is whether the world sees them.