Battling Over Abraham

Extracts from an article by Amy Wilentz New Yorker Sept 16th 1996

Hebron, a hill town that sits among the vineyards and olive groves of the West Bank, is a traditional locus of zealotry, venegeance and massacre. It is the only place in the occupied territories where Jews and Palestinians live side by side, and it is the last West Bank town from which the Israeli Army is supposed to ... 'redeploy'.

Hebron has a population of about a hundred and twenty thousand, of whom four hundred are Jews living in a settlement just off Policeman Square, in an old Jewish quarter that was abandoned in 1929, when Arabs massacred scores of its inhabitants. After the Six-Day War, Jews began trickling back to the town, and now Jewish settlers occupy ancient houses crowned with two or three new stories and with garlands of shiny razor wire. Heavily padlocked steel gates lead into the settlement, and metal bars with small spikes in them have been laid across some of the access roads to prevent cars from entering. Non-Jewish traffic is blocked off by Israeli soldiers in watch-towers and sentry booths, while settlers, with their machine guns, pistols, cellular telephones, and gaggles of kids, pass through unquestioned.

In a vacant lot that Palestinians mockingly call 'the Hebron zoo," settler children wander among chickens and turkeys, scattering feed. The lot became available when the Israeli Army razed several Arab houses from whose roofs Palestinians had machine-gunned and grenaded a group of settlers, including some yeshiva students, in 1980. The Jews are drawn to Hebron by a massive stone structure on the other side of the settlement from Policeman Square. They call the building the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the Muslims call it the Ibrahaimi Mosque.

It is a holy site for both religions. Without the Tomb, there would be no settlers in Hebron to slash Palestinian tires and throw Molotov coctails at Arab establishments. Without the soldiers who protect the settlers, there would be no Israeli Army to aim rocks at in the middle of town. Before the Six-Day War, Muslims had controlled the town and the Tomb for about seven hundred years. Then, between 1967 and 1994, Jews and Muslims shared the sanctuary according to an agreed-upon daily schedule.

This arrangement was deemed to be unworkable two years ago, after Dr. Baruch Goldstein, formerly of Brooklyn, burst into the building during predawn prayers in Ramadan, the holiest Islamic month, and killed twenty-nine Muslims before his head was smashed in with a fire extinguisher by enraged survivors. The Israeli govemment imposed a curfew to quell the ensuing disturbances, cleaned the blood off the prayer rugs, plugged the bullet holes that scored the marble columns and elaborately decorated plaster walls of the interior, divided the sanctuary, and set up two separate entrances. The mosque side is now accessible only to non-Jews, and the Jewish side only to non-Muslims. (The walls on the Jewish side are still illuminated with Arabic calligraphy in enormous, formal arching script.) The road that runs from Policeman Square past the settlement to the sanctuary is dosed to Arab traffic.

A few days ago, I slipped through the three checkpoints on the mosque side of the Tomb by allowing a Muslim friend who accompanied me to allege to the Israeli guards that I was a Christian. Inside, I covered my head and took off my shoes and knelt on a prayer rug. I put my forehead on the cool marble floor and peered through a metal grate down a chute that drops fifty feet beneath the mosque. Four candles were burning faintly on the floor below. Both the Bible and the Quran hold that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with their wives, are buried somewhere down there in a subterranean cave. According to the account in Genesis, Abraham bought the cave from Ephron, a Hittite landowner, for four hundred silver shekels. But who was Abraham? Jews, even secular Jews (along with most Christians), hold that Abmham is the patriarch of the people of Israel. Muslims believe that Abraham - who lived long before the time of Moses, and before Judaism was accepted as a system of law and before Judaism was accepted as a system of law and belief - was a prophet of Islam. Through his son Ishmael, who was bom before Sarah's son Isaac, and whose mother was Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian hand- maiden, he is the patriarch of the Arab peoples. It is this ancient contradiction that fuels the present conflict over Hebron, and that won't be resolved by redeployment, which the Oslo accords define as a pullout by the Israelis from eighty-five per cent of the town.

For Israeli conservatives like GeneraI Ariel Sharon, who is Netanyahu's Minister of Infrastructure in the new Likud government, eighty-five per cent is too much too much more than zero, which is what he and Hebron's Jewish settlers would prefer. Even before Netanyahu began talkng directly with Yasir Arafat last week, Sharon objected to what he sees as a capitulation regarding Hebron, and to the fact that he and other hard- liners were not being given a prominent enough role in the negotiations with the Palestinians. The subject of Hebron was one of the main reasons I joined the government,' he complained. For the Muslims of Hebron and the greater Islamic world, on the other hand, an eighty five- percent withdrawal is not enough. 'Re- deployment won't solve anything really' a friend of mine fiom Hebron said recently, "because the Israelis will always keep soldiers here to guard the settlers and the Tomb."

The walls of the present Tomb of the Patriarchs were built by the Jewish King Herod at the dawn of the Christian era. A millennium earlier, David had ruled Judea from Hebron. After the Biblical period, most of Hebron's Jews were sent into exile, but by the end of the second century B.C. they were once again the dominant group. The Jews were defeated by the Romans late in the first century A.D., and a church was built over the Cave of Machpelah, the Biblical name for the double cave in which the patriarchs are said to be buried. Hebron was taken by the Arabs in 638, - and the church over the cave was converted into a mosque.

Few early visits to the cave have been recorded. One of the earliest Muslim accounts comes from the tenth century. A man named Abu Bakr al-Askafi tells of the contributions he made to the so that he could enter the double cave and see the tomb of Abraham, whom Muslims call the Fziend of God, or Khalil. (The Arabic name for Hebron is al-Khalil.) With a guide named Saluk, Abu Bakr descended seventrtwo steps into the cavern, where he saw a bier built of stone and a body on it.- 'The body of an aged man, lying on his back, long- bearded and hairy of cheek, with clothes of a green color.' Saluk informs Abu Bakr that this is lsaac. On another bier, another body is extended, "the hair on his breast already whtened with age, and his head, and beard, and eyebrows, and eyelashes white also.' This is Abraham.

In the twelfth century, the Crusaders captured Hebron and converted the mosque back into a church; a hundred and sixty years later, the Marmluks, an Islamic people, retook Hebron. It was the Mamluks who first declared the sanctuary and the Cave of Machpelah off limits to Jews, and that prohibition extended throughout the four centuries of Ottoman rule, right through the British mandate in Palestine, which began in 1917. Under the mandate, Jews could approach the Tomb of the Patriarchs only as far as the seventh step on the external stairway.

One of the earliest recorded accounts of a European exploring the cave was made in November, 1917, when a British occupation detachment arrived in Hebron. The chief political officer, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, roamed through the building and stopped for a moment to appreciate the majestic cenotaphs that stood inside small inner rooms decorated with gorgeous Arabic inscriptions. Meinertzhagen was standing near Abraham's cenotaph when he noticed a small door half open. The door led into a dark and rock-strewn hallway that seemed to fall off from the opening at a forty-five-degree angle. Stumbling and sliding down this corridor, Meinertzhagen suddenly found himself in a sub- terranean redoubt only a few yards wide. There was little light in the chamber, and cracks in the floor seemed to speak of the place's antiquity, the irregular walls were covered with a copious layer of dust and smoke. At the end of the room, a big block of stone, or massive piece of masonry, stood like a morgue slab in a corner. The sides and the top were smoky and stained with ritual oils and the remains of burned incense. After taking a quick turn about the dark room, Meinertzhagen rushed up and out into daylight and flesh air. It was only later that he realized that the sombre place he had stumbled upon was the usually inaccessible cave where the patriarchs of the Bible were supposedly entombed.

After the Israelis took the West Bank from the Jordanians in 1967, General Moshe Dqan, the Israelli Minister of Defense, went to the mosque. Israelis tell of how he sent a skinny twelve-year-old girl down the chute in the mosque floor into what many supposed was the cave (but seems to have been a subterranean sanctuary one level above the burial rooms). Running down a long corridor to a small dank room, she found nothing but a plaque on a greasy wall with an Arabic inscription on it. (According to the current keepers of the mosque, the oxygen below the surface was too thin for the child, and she had to be pujled up precipitately.) Muhammad Tamimi, a guide who has been working at the mosque for thirty years, says that once, eighteen years ago, he descended to the first level. He believes that no one (except, perhaps, Colonel Meinertzhagen) has been down to the lower level in hundreds of years; Tamimi says that even if he were permitted to, he would not explore it because it is the resting place of the prophets. 'Six hundred or seven hundred years ago, someone went down there, and he saw Sarah,'Tamimi told me. 'She was brushing her hair, She looked at him and said, 'thou shall be blind.' And he was blinded. The prophets don't really die.'

According to the accounts of Jewish settlers, some twelve years after General Dayan sent the girl down the chute, and long after he had handed back control of the sanctuary to its Muslim keepers, a group of settlers paid off the caves guards and slithered below the mosque. They say that they went farther and deeper than the girl had, and they claim that they discovered two caves - the double cave with platforms in them and bones scattered about. But they had to leave be they could explore further. The waqf, religious organization that safeguards mosque, found out about the settlers intrusion, and the entry to the cave was subsequently cemented over.

The controversy over Hebron keeps circling back to the question of Abraham. Jews know the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God orders Abraham to sacrifice his, son as offering to the Lord and as an avowal of perfect fealty to lim. He then stays Abraham's hand at the last moment sparing Isaac. In the Quaranic version this story, Ishmael, rather than Isaac is the son who is threatened and the saved. Abraham and Ishmael build the Kaaba, the Islamic holy shrine at Mecca and begin to worship there. "Jews have no religious relation to Abraham," says Shheikh Taysir Tamimi, the head of Hebron's Shariah court, which arbitrates in questions of Islamic law. 'the relation between us and the prophets is religious. In the Quran it says that 'Muhammad developed what Abraham started.' According to tradition, one of Tamimi's cestors, the olive-oil merchant Tamim al-Dari, lived at the time of Muhammad and was given the municipality Hebron by the Prophet himself. The are hundreds of Tamimis in Hebron among them the guide at the mosque who told me about Sarah brushing her hair.

The Sheikh is known in Hebron as a suporter of Hamas, the militant Islamic oganization that has nurtured many of the people involved in terrorist actions aonst Israelis in recent years, including the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv suicide bombings in February and March. More than fifty per cent of Hebronites say they identify themsdves with Hamas which translates as "zeal" in Arabic - though only a small number are involved in what the group calls 'military actions.' "These days, the Israelis close the mosque whenever they wish," Sheikh Tamimi says. they give unacceptable reasons: they want to see the security plans, they want to fix something here, something there. The real mmn is that they are making policy to stop Muslims from going to the Ibrahimi Mosque, so that it becomes usual for us to be forbidden. Anyway, it is improper under Quranic law for two religions to worship in one place, and this has been an Islamic mosque since the beginning of Islam. Jews, should not be in the mosque. If you go inside the mosque, everything says its Muslim.

"Look," says [David] Wilder, who is a frequent spokesman for the Hebron settlers 'You go back two thousand years, an Herod, the King of the Jews, built that massive bulding tliere on that spot and no place else - for a reason." WAder h a pistol tucked into the back of his trousers and the ritual tassels of the Orthodox pocking out from beneat his shirt. "For them, anything that has historical Jewish importance is a mosque,' he says. What does 'mosque' mean? This building was built about six hundred years before Muhammad was bom."

In 1929, under the influence of the anti- Zionist leadership in Jerusalem, Hebron's Arab population turned on the venerable Jewish community in the old city, and sixty-seven people were killed - among them students from Phlladelphia and Chicago, as well as women and small children. Hundreds were wounded, holy books were burned, and a tradition of peaceful coexistence was, it seems totally destroyed. Many Jews were killed by Arab neighbors they had known for a lifetime. Others were sheltered by Muslim fiiends - In Beit Hadassah, the apartment complex in front of which the Yeshiva students were gunned down by Palestinians in 1980, there is a one-room mausoleum that tells the story of the Jewish presence in Hebron over the centuries.


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