Even more than Jerusalem, the city of Hebron, 17 miles to the south on the West Bank, is a captive of its history, to the detriment of many of its residents and to Israeli-Palestinian peace. To friends of Israel, the story of Hebron began when the patriarch Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite to bury Sarah and secure his ownership in perpetuity. That story is told in Genesis 23. Centuries later, King David ruled from Hebron before conquering Jerusalem from the Jebusites, giving Israel its eternal capital.
Hebron is also the site of the 1929 massacre of 67 Jews by their Palestinian neighbors. Three days of Palestinian riots drove the remaining few hundred Jews from the place where Jews had lived since the time of Abraham.
Abraham’s purchase order is still seen by many as the Jewish deed to the city. And the massacre by a hostile Arab majority still festers. So last week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Hebron (for the first time since 1998) to mark the 90th anniversary of the massacre and declared, “We are not strangers in Hebron, we will remain here forever,” he appeared to be reinforcing bitter divisions rather than pointing the way to a future in which Jews and Palestinians can live in the ancient city in safety and dignity.
Hebron is a good example of the challenge to create two states for two people. After Israel took the city in the 1967 Six Day War, it established the settlement of Kiryat Arba, a biblical name for Hebron, on the hills above the city, and Jews began to repopulate the city itself. In 1994, American-born Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs. That, along with two Palestinian uprisings, have led the Israeli government to impose ever tighter restrictions on the Palestinian population.
Shuhada Street is emblematic of these restrictions. Once a main Hebron thoroughfare, it was closed by the the Israeli military after the Goldstein massacre. To this day, residents on that street have difficulty accessing their front doors and often have to clamber over roofs to reach their back doors.
We respect the passion for the ancestral homeland. But is sectioning off the populations the model for the future?
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called Hebron a “test of our ability to live together, Jews and Arabs, to live decent lives side by side.” Clearly that test is not going well.
Where do Israeli leaders want to go with this? And what about Palestinian leadership?
It has been 90 years since the Hebron massacre, and 52 years since Israel conquered
Hebron, yet hostility and mistrust continue. It is time for Hebron to change. Perhaps progress can be made by people of good will on both sides who are interested in working to solve the puzzle. We encourage them to step forward.