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City of Abraham: History, Myth and Memory: A Journey through Hebron by Edward Platt

December 19, 2015

TCOAI have twice tried to visit the Tomb of Abraham at Hebrfon. On the first occasion, the older members of out group were so slow in the morning that, by the time we reached it, it was shut for Friday prayers.

On the second, we had just arrived when it was declared unsafe and we had to move on.

One of the world’s most divided cities, Hebron, the only place in the West Bank where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side. It begins with a hill called Tel Rumeida, the site of ancient Hebron, where the patriarch Abraham – father of the Jews and the Arabs – was supposed to have lived when he arrived in the Promised Land. Through a mixture of travel writing, reportage and interviews, Platt tells the history of the hill and the city in which it stands, and explores the mythic roots of the struggle to control the land.

He meets the Palestinian residents of Tel Rumeida, and the messianic settlers who have made their homes in a block of flats that stands on stilts on an excavated corner of the site. He meets the archaeologists who have attempted to reconstruct the history of the hill. He meets the soldiers who serve in Hebron, and the intermediaries who try to keep the peace in the divided city.

He explores the ways in which Hebron’s past continues to inform its tumultuous present, and illuminates the lives of the people at the heart of the most intractable conflict in the world.

While biblical claims to the city are very old, the seemingly intractable conflict over its land began surprisingly recently. Even after Muslim armies conquered Palestine in 636 and turned the building above the tomb into a mosque, Jews and Muslims lived pretty peacefully in Hebron until as late as 1929, when 67 Jews were massacred by local Arabs and the remaining Jewish population was evacuated. Forty years later, in 1968, a group of messianic settlers moved in and the current problems began.

Route 60, the so-called Way of the Patriarchs, which runs down the spine of the Judean Hills from Jerusalem to Hebron, is open to all. The road is fortified by armoured walls and nets and lined with checkpoints, yet you’d always see off-duty Israeli soldiers or Orthodox Jews in traditional dress waiting at roadside hitching spots.

The context is set well by Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth `A myth . . . is an event that — in some sense ­happened once, but which also happens all the time.’

It’s a pity that the black and white photos are of such a poor quality.

TCOA 2Quotations:

Isaac and Ishmael only met once as adults, when they buried their father in the family tomb in Hebron, but nonetheless the warring residents of the city are aware of their shared heritage: as one Palestinian man was to say to me, Arabs and Jews are `brothers with different mothers’.

we passed the front gate of Cordoba Girls’ School and along a concrete alley, where ‘Gas the Arabs’ had been spray-painted on a gate

(Psalm 139 concludes) ‘Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones’. Yet the Psalmist’s rage proved misconceived: far from destroying the Jews, the experience of exile proved to be the crucible in which their identity was forged. ‘A new community was formed out of the wreckage of the old, and a new faith, puri­fied, refined, was forged out of adversity,’ write two British rabbis, David J. Goldberg and John D. Rayner, in their history of the Jewish people. Parts of the Bible were written in exile, and when the Persians conquered the Babylonian empire, in 539 BCE, and allowed the Jews to return to Judea with permission to rebuild the ‘house of God at Jerusalem’, the collection of texts began to assume their final form.

It was most probably at this moment, as ‘the remnant of the house of Israel . . . came back to a wasted and devastated Palestine’, that Hebron was identified as the city of the patriarchs. As the Jewish scribes or priests who were defin­ing the identity of the ‘tiny, reconstituted people’ cast back to an invented past in order to lend their claim to the land more weight, they chose to locate the patriarchal legends in the ancient city on Tel Rumeida. In other words, the patri­archal legends were not the products of an oral tradition that preserved a folk memory of an ancient tribal chieftain, but contemporary inventions that reflect contemporary concerns, and the story maintaining Abraham had bought property in Hebron might have served a simple political purpose: it was a means of asserting Jewish control of the city, and attempting to re-establish the boundaries of the shattered state.

He talked about the Intifada in the way that a child might describe a playground squabble: ‘We didn’t start it. They started it. OK, if they think things are better for them now than they were then they need their brains checked. But they started the Intifada, and I don’t see that there’s any way back, really.’ There was another pause, while he bent over his scroll: ‘You know, it sounds racist but people who grow up in Arab countries say you can’t trust them. They can be friends with you but if they get incited they can stick a knife in your back — obviously not all of them, but it’s a common characteristic of Arabs.’

His recognition that the remark sounds racist did not make it seem any less so. Noam Amon was prepared to concede that the people who had lived in Palestine before the Zionists’ arrival had rights, but Gabriel Ben Yitzhak wanted to deny their existence altogether: ‘People talk as if the Palestinians have lived here for thousands of years. It’s a load of nonsense — the Palestinians lived here . . .’ He was becoming agitated again and his voice was becoming higher-pitched: ‘At the turn of the century, when the Jews started coming in masses, there were a few thousand Arabs here, that was the whole story. It’s all invented, this whole story of Palestinians. There are people who suffered, I don’t deny it, but this whole story of millions of Palestinians . .. No one wanted it. It was desolate. It was a wasteland. There was nothing here.’

The idea of ‘a people without land for a land without people’ is Zionism’s consoling myth, and the expulsion of the Palestinian population its guiltiest secret. ‘Israelis, lead­ers and people alike, have a genuine psychological problem when faced with the refugee issue,’ the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has written. ‘This is indeed for them the “original sin”. It puts a huge question mark over the Israeli self-image of moral superiority and human sensitivity. It ridicules Israel’s oxymorons, such as the “purity of arms” or mis­nomers such as the “Israeli Defence Forces”, and raises doubts over the religious notion of the “chosen people” and political pretensions of being the only democracy in the Middle East which should be wholeheartedly supported by the West.’

He talked about the Intifada in the way that a child might describe a playground squabble: ‘We didn’t start it. They started it. OK, if they think things are better for them now than they were then they need their brains checked. But they started the Intifada, and I don’t see that there’s any way back, really.’ There was another pause, while he bent over his scroll: ‘You know, it sounds racist but people who grow up in Arab countries say you can’t trust them. They can be friends with you but if they get incited they can stick a knife in your back — obviously not all of them, but it’s a common characteristic of Arabs.’

His recognition that the remark sounds racist did not make it seem any less so. Noam Arnon was prepared to concede that the people who had lived in Palestine before the Zionists’ arrival had rights, but Gabriel Ben Yitzhak wanted to deny their existence altogether: ‘People talk as if the Palestinians have lived here for thousands of years. It’s a load of nonsense — the Palestinians lived here . . .’ He was becoming agitated again and his voice was becoming higher-pitched: ‘At the turn of the century, when the Jews started coming in masses, there were a few thousand Arabs here, that was the whole story. It’s all invented, this whole story of Palestinians. There are people who suffered, I don’t deny it, but this whole story of millions of Palestinians … No one wanted it. It was desolate. It was a wasteland. There was nothing here.’

The idea of ‘a people without land for a land without people’ is Zionism’s consoling myth, and the expulsion of the Palestinian population its guiltiest secret. ‘Israelis, lead­ers and people alike, have a genuine psychological problem when faced with the refugee issue,’ the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has written. ‘This is indeed for them the “original sin”. It puts a huge question mark over the Israeli self-image of moral superiority and human sensitivity. It ridicules Israel’s oxymorons, such as the “purity of arms” or mis­nomers such as the “Israeli Defence Forces”, and raises doubts over the religious notion of the “chosen people” and political pretensions of being the only democracy in the Middle East which should be wholeheartedly supported by the West.’

Like most Israelis he had not spent any time in ‘the Ter­ritories’, and he did not know anything about the settlers, other than what he had got from television: ‘I thought they were regular people like you and me: they have one nose, two ears, they live, they get married, they have children. But it didn’t mention that they would be so fanatical.’ In his first days in the city one of the settlers’ kids, who was no more than five or six years old, thanked him for killing all the Arabs, and he saw another spit in the face of an old Pales­tinian woman. ‘And not because the five-year-old is a punk, but because this is how it is.’

In common with many of the soldiers who testified to Breaking the Silence, Dotan came to believe that they were terrorizing the city: ‘Going into someone’s house in the middle of the night, going through her stuff, going through her drawers – isn’t that a sin? We don’t know who is the enemy and so everybody is a suspect. And you start treating them like shit. I come to your house, I go inside your house for a routine check, I search your stuff – even if we were nice, in person, it’s inevitable that you’re doing an atrocity.’

He estimated there were seven hundred soldiers guarding seven hundred settlers, which meant that each of them had `a special guard’.

One soldier told Breaking the Silence about an incident in which they entered a house at 6 a.m. to arrest a teenage boy who had been throwing stones: ‘You know, the way it goes when your mind’s already screwed up, and you have no more patience for Hebron and Arabs and Jews there. We went inside and began to trash the house.’ The commander, `who was a bit of a fanatic’, dragged the boy out of the house, and ‘really beat the shit out of him’. As he dragged him away he kept pointing out holes in the ground and asking him, ‘Is here where you want to die? Or here?’ They took him to a ‘concrete house which was under construction’, where they beat him to the point he couldn’t stand, and when his family came to look for him the commander put his gun in the boy’s mouth and told them that he would shoot him if they came any closer. The soldier who reported the incident had done nothing to stop him: ‘We were indif­ferent,’ he said. ‘It got to the point where we couldn’t tell right from wrong. That’s how it was in our platoon . . . If you even just looked at us in some way that irked us you’d get beaten up.’

The relentless routine — eighteen days with eight hours on and eight hours off, followed by a three-day break — contributed to the loss of empathy so many soldiers attested to: `Serving in the Territories isn’t about numbness, it’s a “high”, a sort of negative high,’ one soldier said: ‘You’re always tired, you’re always hungry, you always have to go to the bathroom, you’re always scared to die . . . It’s the experience of a hunted animal, a hunting animal, of an animal, whatever . . . “Do you have any idea what shape people were in?’ another said. ‘You’re fed up and everyone’s a pack of nerves. And when you come down from the guard post you go: Fuck, I’m so sick of this town. You come down all nerves, and then you run into some Arab on the way, and slap his face . . . Guys would take the Arab into their post and beat him to a pulp . . Just like that. Because, really, our nerves were gone and we said what the fuck . . . Some said: “I’ll fuck with those Arabs like I’m being fucked with here.” You know how it is. Not too cool there.’

he was less concerned with observable reality than a mythic topography prefigured in the Prophets. He claimed that the Bible had even predicted the course of the Separation Barrier. ‘In the end, everything falls together,’ he said. ‘Tremendous miracles are taking place here every day with the Jews returning after so many years to their homeland.’

I’m not willing, for example, to give up Cordoba, which is not my property, to anybody. ­I’m willing to die for it. And so are my teachers and my students. And they will find so many Arab families also willing.’

I do not believe that the country will ever be successfully divided into two. All of the attempts to partition Palestine since the Peel Plan of 1937 have failed, and the task has grown progressively harder, as the settlers’ presence in Hebron makes plain. One day, it will be acknowledged that there will never be a separate state in the West Bank and Gaza, and then the Palestinian struggle will change from a national-liberation movement to a civil-rights campaign and the clamour for equal representation for all of Abraham’s heirs — citizens of the indivisible country

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