Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/22/2013

Hebron, a Palestinian City Trashed

A city trashed. Photo Copyright Keith A. Smith, Holy Land Enterprises, LLC

A city trashed. Photo Copyright Keith A. Smith, Holy Land Enterprises, LLC

Then Abraham. . . said to Ephron. . .“ I will give the price of the field; accept it from me, so that I may bury my dead there.” Ephron answered Abraham, “. . . a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver. . . Bury your dead.” . . . Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites. . . So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it . . .  passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites. . .  Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron). . . The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying-place (Genesis 23:12-20 NRSV).

The Palestinian city Hebron is known as the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs because tradition holds that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are buried there. The cave where they are thought to be buried is the first property Abraham, Patriarch of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, owned in Canaan. The site has apparently been revered for three millennia.

I have been in Hebron twice, each with a group of Americans traveling in Palestine and Israel in hopes of discovering the truth of the situation “on the ground.” I have seen the graves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The graves are enclosed by the Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the Sanctuary of Abraham Mosque. The mosque is one of the few places I have felt Rudolf Otto’s “idea of the holy,” or the “numinous.”

The Mosque is of vast proportions. To reach the entrance, one must walk beside the fortress-like wall of the enclosure constructed at the order of Herod the Great. So one is immediately taken away from fiscal cliffs and the Super Bowl and other ever-present distractions.  A wall parts of which at least were built 2,000 years ago. It gives one (this one at any rate) pause.

One removes one’s shoes to enter the mosque (unless one is part of a group of a dozen or so Israeli Defense Force soldiers in full uniform with assault rifles slung over their shoulders come to—to what? learn about Islam? practice finding terrorists?). The tourist, the curious, the faithful—even the soldier—all are welcome to wander, to explore, and eventually to find the monuments to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Descriptions and histories and travel guides are readily available online.

Depending on one’s biases, one can find descriptions that do not mention the mosque, but only the graves, or one can find descriptions that fail to mention the importance of the site for millennia to the Jews. Or one can find histories that glorify the Crusaders who took the structure back from Islamic forces or the Islamic forces that in turn took it back from the Crusaders. The cave and the surrounding property have changed ownership (or at least possession by force) many times since Abraham bought it.

The history of Hebron and the surrounding (graciously appealing) hillsides is complex, both unsettled and unsettling. One cannot say simply “these people” or “those people” are the rightful owners. One can say, however, in the modern era of the (worldwide?) acceptance of political self-determination for the people of any nation or society, the forceful taking of land and cities is unacceptable. Abraham the stranger bought the land; he did not take it by force.

The Idea of the Holy

The Idea of the Holy

No party in the millennia-long wars/battles/conflicts in the area is blameless. In 1929 Muslims massacred many of the 750 Jewish residents of the city. The British, who were “mandated” by the League of Nations at the time to control Palestine, moved the surviving Jews away from the city. On the other hand, in 1994, a Jewish settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in the Sanctuary of the Patriarchs. Many histories of the struggle over the territory are available online. This writing is not intended to be historical (1).

The current ongoing crisis began in 1968 when a small group of Jewish settlers moved into an abandoned hotel in the center of the city. Since that time a total of about 800 Jewish settlers have moved into the heart of the city (a large settler town has been built on the outskirts of the city). This small group of settlers has made life miserable for the 170,000 or so remaining Palestinians (mostly Muslim) in the city. The Israeli Defense Force stations nearly as many Israeli soldiers there to protect them. Since there is no strong government aside from occupation forces in most of the West Bank, the military has become the de facto government, an occupation force without clear responsibility to either the government of Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

The result is a city where fewer than 1,000 citizens control, harass, and make the lives of 170,000 both miserable and economically nearly nonviable. The IDF maintains such tight control over the city that it is virtually impossible for the Palestinians to carry on a normal life of commerce, education, or community. Main streets are barricaded, businesses in the settler neighborhoods are closed, and life is in many respects at a standstill. The settlers are free to come and go as they desire, and while they “routinely harass Palestinian residents and the tension sometimes erupts into violence, the IDF has succeeded in its immediate goal of avoiding large-scale bloodshed” (2).

As I wrote above, I sensed the numinous in the Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi. I am not given to “religious experience.” Before I visited the first time, the group I was with had walked around the barrier of the street pictured here. There were no soldiers that day, but their presence was (is) everywhere. The edge of the building on the left is a home the IDF has commandeered for a lookout tower to guard the ancient Jewish cemetery below. The buildings on the right are Palestinian homes to which the owners cannot drive because of the barriers. This is life in the city.

In commercial districts in the midst of which settlers have their enclaves, the Palestinians whose shops and homes remain find it necessary to cover the streets with netting to catch the trash the settlers routinely throw out their windows to harass and demean those below.

Yet the life of tradition and prayer continues in the face of impossible disruption. The Palestinians live—at least those I have met in Hebron in two short visits—in constant turmoil. While their society is being crushed, they persist, not with what we might call heroism, but with a simple (often grim) determination. The Palestinians who remain in Hebron (the 30,000 or so with means to leave have done so) go on living. I don’t know how.

. . .goal of avoiding large-scale bloodshed?

. . .goal of avoiding large-scale bloodshed?

They live in a city that has literally been “trashed” in the name of—is it the name of religion, of culture, of hatred? The IDF occupying force’s “goal of avoiding large-scale bloodshed” has come “at the cost of turning a holy city into a moral obscenity” (3).

That a current visual symbol for an ancient city of reverence for followers of three faiths is a net of trash is grievous. My personal experience of the numinous at the ancient place of reverence was not some mystical experience of the presence of God. It was having already experienced the mystery of the resilience of human life—the mystery present there for millennia.

(1) Those who want a full understanding of the roots of the crisis, see Chapter Three of Colin Chapman’s. Whose Promised Land? The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.
(2) “Postcard From Palestine.” Nation 291.18 (2010): 8-9.
(3) ibid.


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