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January 17, 2006

HEBRON – KHALIL: THE UNFREINDLY CITY HOLY TO US ALL

Special for AMIN

By: Gershon Baskin*

Special for AMIN

In 1995 after the massacre committed by the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein there was a brief moment of opportunity for the Israeli government to remove the Jewish settlers from Hebron.  There was a clear majority in the Israeli government in favor of removing the settlers, but Prime Minister Rabin was convinced by the late Prof. Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on Jewish right wing groups, that in the case of forced evacuation, a group of settlers would be likely to commit suicide – blowing themselves up in a “masada” type campaign.  Sprinzak believed that the public outcry in Israel under those circumstances would bring down the Rabin government and the nascent peace process.  Rabin decided not to bring the issue to the cabinet for a vote.

Now, eleven years later where some 500 fanatic messianic Jews continue to make life in Hebron a living hell for the 120,000 Palestinians in the city, the Israeli government is finally beginning to take the first steps that will remove the first settlers from the center of the city. 

Hebron is a very special city – no one doubts its religious importance as the city of the Patriarchs.  Hebron is also a special city because of its own bloody history in the conflict.  For Jews it has symbolized the barbarism of terrorism since the 1929 riots there.  For Palestinians, the massacre of Baruch Goldstein “matches” the Jewish memories of horror. The Jewish settlers of Hebron have demanded special privileges in reclaiming the property of the Jews of Hebron from before 1929 because of and in the name of the massacre of 1929.  Without diminishing from the memory of those who were brutally killed there, there is nothing special about Hebron in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  There are hundreds of places and dates that can be recalled from the 100 years of conflict by both sides to invoke the memory of the fallen martyrs and the uniqueness and links to those places and dates. The massacre of 1929 does not grant any special privileges or rights to Jews to reclaim property in Hebron any more than the rights of Palestinian refugees from Yaffa or any other of the hundreds of destroyed villages throughout the land of Israel to reclaim their property rights.  If one side of the conflict has the right to reclaim property rights from before 1948, then surely the other side must have the same right.  The mutual claims on property rights must be dealt with at some time in the peace process.  At that time, a possible key for resolution and agreement may be found in a willingness to examine the difference between property rights and residence rights. But until that time, neither side has to right to claim unilaterally rights that are also unilaterally denied to the other side.

Hebron is also a special place because of its religious-holy significance. The situation of the period of 1949-1967 when Jews were denied the possibility of praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs is not acceptable and should not be desirable. Any peace process must entail religious tolerance, mutual respect and a large degree of civility when it comes to relating to the Holy Places of all the faiths. The religious claims of Jews regarding the holiness of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs cannot be denied by anyone or by any religious group that makes similar claims to that Holy Place or to any other Holy Place.  People of religion do not have to accept the truth of claims made by other religions, but they must accept that the other religions’ truths have equal value to their own claims of truth.

If the Palestinians wish to remove the settlers from Hebron, it would be wise of them to propose a plan that recognizes the holiness of Hebron to the Jewish people and guarantees the religious rights of the Jewish people there. The issue of residency rights of Jews in Hebron can and should be dealt with at a later time in the framework of a peace agreement.  If in the post conflict period, Jews would like to live in Hebron as peaceful citizens within the Palestinian state, there should be a Palestinian willingness to consider that possibility.  During this period of continued entrenched conflict, I am afraid that it is not possible for the group of the most fanatic and extremist right-wing messianic Jews to continue to reside in Hebron.

A Palestinian plan for Hebron should include a clear declaration recognizing the holiness of Hebron to the Jewish people.  The plan should include arrangements for Jewish prayer on a regular basis in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The plan should call for international protection and guarantees to protect those rights and to provide security protection for Jews who would come to pray in the Tomb.  It might be possible to empower the international observers of TIPH who are already in the city with responsibilities to provide physical protection and not only write monitoring reports as has been done since they were brought to the city.  The plan should enable the Jews to establish a center of learning in one of the Jewish properties and to even have a museum of Jewish heritage there. Arrangements should be made for convoys that would transport the Jews prayers into the city at set hours everyday.

Palestinians have an opportunity of playing a constructive role in assisting the Israeli government in dealing with a very complex problem.  The Government of Israel must remove the settlers from Hebron at this time.  The violence and rage demonstrated by the settlers these now concerning removing eight families from stores that have been converted into homes in the old market in the center of Hebron should provide a very vivid sense of the emotions involved.  A Palestinian initiative aimed at recognizing and guaranteeing Jewish religious rights in Hebron would be very helpful in building public support in Israel for removing the settlers as well as creating an international willingness to assist.

After the Baruch Goldstein massacre when there was a threat of removing the settlers the pro-settler groups in Israel put out a bumper sticker that said: “Hebron – Now and Forever!”.  I wasn’t surprised when I saw some Palestinian cares with the same sticker. Taking positive and constructive action now to relieve the difficult situation of Hebron could have a lasting and influential impact on renewing the political process.  Hebron could explode into violence at any time – it has always been like that, but it also provides and opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to begin to head towards better understandings and chances for reconciliation.

* Dr. Gershon Baskin is the Israeli CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information  http://www.ipcri.org   [email protected]