The city of Hebron, approximately 20 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills, has been linked to the Jewish people from time immemorial. It is, after Jerusalem, the most sacred city for the Jewish people.
Today approximately 1,000 Jews, live in four small neighborhoods of the city: Avraham Avinu, Beit Hadassah, Tel Romano and a region above Tel Rumeida where mobile homes are located. The population is comprised of some 100 families, as well as 250 students studying at the Yeshivat Shavei Hevron in Tel Romano.
Within Hebron, near the Jewish neighborhoods, is the Cave of Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. An exceedingly ancient site of enormous religious significance to Jews, it too is under Israeli control today.
Immediately to the east of Hebron is the modern Jewish municipality of Kiryat Arba; founded in 1971, it now boasts 6,5000 residents and provides services – schools, stores, clinics – upon which the Jewish residents of Hebron rely.
Historical connection: From ancient to recent times
Starting with Genesis
Hebron – sometimes referred to as Mamre, and sometimes as Kiryat Arba – is mentioned 78 times in the Bible. The Jewish connection to this ancient city begins with Abraham: After entering Caanan some 3,700 years ago, he came to live in Hebron, which is where he learned of God’s promise of the land to his seed. When his wife Sarah died, he purchased a family burial cave and surrounding field in Hebron from Ephron the Hittite for 400 measures of silver. That burial cave is the Cave of Machpelah, where all of the matriarchs, save Rachel, and all of the patriarchs are buried.
Three thousand years ago, David was anointed king of Israel in Hebron, and ruled from there for seven years before making Jerusalem his capital.
Temple times and after
After the destruction of the First Temple, many, but not all, Jews were exiled. Judah Maccabee did battle here in the 2nd century BCE and Hebron again became a Jewish city. Subsequently, King Herod built the structure that stands atop the actual caves to this day.
The Machpelah: Cave of the Patriarchs
After the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews continued to live in Hebron and to pray at the Machpelah.
In the two millennia since, what we see is a pattern of holding fast to the city, so that every time there has been enforced exile, with only a remnant remaining, there has been return and re-establishment of community – community that during some periods flourished.
Byzantines, Crusaders and Mamluks – the seventh step
The Byzantines, in the 6th century, made a church of the Machpelah; yet Jews continued to live in Hebron, and there is evidence that a Jewish community was maintained during subsequent Arab conquests. During the period of Crusader conquest, 12th and 13th century, Jews were again exiled, but returned to establish a community under the Muslim Mamluks, 13th to 16th century.
Seven hundred years ago, the Mamluks decreed that Jews were forbidden to enter the Machpelah, which was functioning as a mosque. The edict that Jews were restricted to the infamous seventh step of the entrance was in force until the 20th century. And still Jews lived there, and prayed from that seventh step.
Sephardi Jews: Jewish Quarter – Avraham Avinu Synagogue
At the end of the 15th century and into the early 16th century, Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain and then Portugal made their way to Hebron. By this point the Ottomans had assumed control of the area. Purchasing large tracts of land, the Sephardi Jews established a vibrant community that was sustained – in spite of times of difficulty and periods marked by pogroms – for some 400 years. In 1540, the Sephardi rabbi Malkiel Ashkenazi became Hebron’s rabbi and halakhic expert; he acquired a courtyard that became central to Jewish life there – the heart of the Jewish Quarter, and established the Avraham Avinu synagogue, which was housed in a magnificent building.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, well known Kabbalist mystics from Sfat moved to Hebron, bringing their teachings with them.
The late 17th and early 18th century saw difficult times, with blood libels, expulsion decrees, and poverty. Of considerable significance for the community was the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews including Lubavitch Hassidim. Maintaining a close relationship with the Sephardi community, they assisted in strengthening communal institutions; an Ashkenazi synagogue was constructed near the Avraham Avinu Synagogue.
The fortunes of the community improved in the 19th century, with considerable support from philanthropists such as Sir Moses Montefiore. By the early 1800s, the Jews had acquired by purchase and lease over 800 dunams of land. Religious scholars strengthened the spiritual life of the community as well.
In 1879, Haim Yisrael Romano, a wealthy Turkish Jew, venturing beyond the old Jewish Quarter, built an elegant and spacious home known as Beit Romano, which he utilized as his family residence and a hospitality center for visiting Turkish Jews; it also incorporated a synagogue, the Istanbuli Synagogue.
In 1893, a one-story building called Hesed l’Avraham – which provided assistance to the needy, Jewish and Arab – was established by wealthy North African Jews. In 1909 the building was expanded and a clinic established. As Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, contributed the salaries of the medical staff, the building became known as Beit Hadassah.
In 1912, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe (the Rashbash) purchased Beit Romano, and established Yeshivat Torat Emet there.
World War I and British Mandate
World War I brought hard times to Hebron and severe decline in the Jewish community. Once Britain acquired the area at the end of the war, as part of the Mandate for Palestine, the community again began to flourish. Support for education was provided by Zionist organizations, and in 1925, the renowned Yeshiva of Slobodka was moved from Lithuania to Hebron. Beit Romano was seized by the British, however, and used for administrative and police headquarters.
1929 Riots and destruction
Destruction came to the Jewish community of Hebron in 1929, with Arab riots. While relations between Jews and Arabs in the area had not always been placid, there was an extended period prior to these riots that had seen peaceful co-existence. The violence was instigated by the Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who later became an active supporter of the Nazis (and was mentor to Yasser Arafat). The Mufti’s goal, quite simply, was the elimination of the Jewish community of Hebron. To that end he instigated and made false charges.
Arab rioting began following inflammatory sermons and went on for hours, with the indiscriminate slaughter of women, children and the aged. The rioters, wielding weapons, went from house to house, crying “Kill the Jews.” Sixty-seven people were murdered, many were maimed. The Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Hebron, Rabbi Hanoch Hasson, was slaughtered together with his entire family. Ben-Zion Gershon, the pharmacist at the Beit Hadassah Clinic, who had extended professional assistance to Arabs, was tortured; his wife’s hands were cut off and she died in anguish. Synagogues were razed and Torah scrolls burned.
The British made no move to stop the riot. But three days later, after funerals had been conducted, they decided to evacuate the survivors. They were loaded on to trucks and brought to Jerusalem, while all property and possessions were left behind.
In 1931, 35 families attempted to rebuild the Jewish community of Hebron; among them was the elderly Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Slonim, who had lost his entire family in the riots. But in 1936, new riots broke out. Once again, the British, instead of defending the Jewish community, decided that to “maintain calm” they would transport the Jews out of Hebron.
Thus was this most ancient of Jewish communities temporarily vanquished. For the first time in over 3,000 years, there was no remnant community, no Jewish presence, Not until 1968 would there again be a Jewish presence.
In 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence, the Jordanians secured control of Hebron, along with all of Judea, and held it for 19 years. They forbid Jews to live or worship there; razed the Jewish quarter; built an animal pen on the ruins of Avraham Avinu Synagogue; and desecrated the cemetery.
Modern times: the struggle to return
Israel gained control of the area during the Six Day War in June 1967.
Hebron, although devoid of a Jewish population, was once again in Jewish hands.
In April 1968, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of like-minded religious Jews decided it was time to re-establish the Jewish community in Hebron. They began by renting the Park Hotel in Hebron from its Arab owners for an indefinite period of time. When the call went out, 86 people came together in the hotel for Pesach seder ceremony. Two days later, the rabbi called a press conference and declared intentions to remain in the hotel.
This met with resistance from Arab Hebron, as well as from the government of Levi Eshkol, which was not enthusiastic about what was intended. Moshe Dayan, then Defense Minister, gave the group a choice: Be forcibly removed, or go live in the nearby military compound that had become military headquarters for Judea. The group lived in that compound for two and a half years, awaiting construction of the first neighborhood in Kiryat Arba, a new Jewish community that was to be set up adjacent to old Hebron. The city remained relatively quiet during this time, but there were attacks by Arabs on the group of settlers and the IDF; additionally the right of the Jews to pray at the Cave of Machpelah was challenged.
While the establishment of Kiryat Arba constituted a success, there was the longing to return to the old city of Hebron.
In 1979, a group of 10 women and their 40 children made their way into the basement of the old clinic, Beit Hadassah, in the middle of the night. Their presence, discovered in the morning, caused a furor. Prime Minister Menachem Begin did not try to force them out but instead ordered that the building be surrounded and that nothing be allowed in – not even food or water. He relented when Rabbi Levinger reminded him that even enemy Egyptian soldiers under siege were given food and water. For two months, those inside the building lived under siege: no one was allowed in, and anyone who left could not return. After an incident in which one of the children left to go to the dentist and could not return to his mother, the cabinet decided to allow the women and children to come and go. For a year they lived this way.
Each Friday night, worshippers who lived in Kiryat Arba would come outside Beit Hadassah and sing and dance. On a Friday night in May 1980, terrorists attacked, killing six and wounding 20. The Israeli government then relented and gave permission for Jewish resettlement in Hebron. Beit Hadassah was refurbished and residence was permitted in nearby buildings.
Over time, other buildings were refurbished and became places of residence for Jews. After 1980, a Hebron Municipal Committee, established by the government, assumed administrative responsibilities for the Jewish community, and the Ministry of Housing set up the Association for the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron to carry out projects.
The Oslo Process
Following the signing of the Declaration of Principles (Oslo Accords) in 1993, agreements were reached for turning over land to the Palestinian Authority. The Gaza-Jericho First agreement, in 1994, spelled out the first withdrawals.
In September 1995, Oslo II (Interim Agreement), which provided for additional withdrawals from major areas of Palestinian population, was concluded. A subsequent special arrangement with regard to Hebron – the Protocol Concerning Withdrawal in Hebron – was signed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat in 1997. It required the IDF to withdrawal from 80% of Hebron by 1998, with division of the city into H-1, under full control by the Palestinian Authority (and Hebron Arab municipal authority) and H-2, with full control Israeli control. H-2 is a contiguous area to the east and south-east of the city, and incorporates the old Jewish neighborhoods of Hebron as well as the Machpelah.
The Israeli army was given full responsibility for security of Hebron’s Jewish community – which at that point numbered about 300; police under the jurisdiction of the IDF assumed responsibility for handling possible Israeli violations of law in Hebron – military, not civil law.
Responsibility for security at the Cave of Machpelah was also allocated to the IDF, which utilizes police under its jurisdiction inside the Machpelah. A procedure was arranged that provided for complete separation of Jews and Muslims worshipping inside the Machpelah, with a calendar set up providing for 10 religious days for each group on which they would have exclusive access.
The Protocol for Deployment called for joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols of several areas within the H-1 area under Palestinian control – most notably Abu Sneinah, Harat A-Sheikh and the high ground overlooking the new Route No. 35. Fairly worthless in any event, these patrols were discontinued in 2000 with the advent of the violence of the Second Intifada.
Residents of Hebron warned of the dangers inherent in Palestinian of control of Abu Sneinah, which was adjacent to the Jewish area and provided a high point for shooting at the Israeli population. Unfortunately, these warnings were prescient: On March 26, 2001, Shalhevet Pass, 10 months old, was fatally shot in the head by a sniper positioned on a hill at Abu Sneinah. Shalhevet and her parents, Yitzhak – who was wounded in the legs – and Oriyah Pass, were at the entrance to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood; the baby was buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron.
Since Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002, the IDF has patrolled in the Palestinian areas of Hebron, and has set up permanent stations at Abu Sneinah, Harat A-Sheikh and the high ground overlooking the new Route No. 35.
Oslo II, in 1995, had provided for a Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), in response to the killing of Muslim worshippers in the Cave of Machpelah by Kiryat Arba resident, Dr. Baruch Goldstein in 1994. Agreement was made with Norway to establish this mission, which was supposed to observe and provide a stabilizing force. In 1997, a second agreement – coinciding with Israeli partial withdrawal from Hebron – was established with Norway, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey providing personnel for TIPH, and Norway as coordinator..
While the Palestinian Arab population was jubilant at Israeli withdrawal from 97% of part of Hebron, the Jewish population, and those supporting them, was deeply concerned. Hebron is being portrayed as an “Arab” city, which by sufferance is tolerating an irritating small minority of Jews in its midst – a small minority of Jews who are “radical settlers” and a thorn in the side of the Arab majority. The fact that Hebron was the first of Jewish cities and has a long and deep connection to the Jewish people is either denigrated or ignored. This set a precedent, with the ominous possibility that all of Hebron might be claimed as Arab, and the rights of the Jews dismissed. The Jewish claim to the Old Jewish Quarter and to the Cave of Machpelah became more tenuous.
In 1807, Haim Bajaoi purchased, on behalf of the Jews of Hebron, a five-dunam plot of land adjacent to the old Jewish Quarter, for 1,200 grushim; the deal was witnessed by 22 Hebron Arab notables. The property was put to use by the Jewish community.
When the Jordanians occupied Hebron in 1948, they razed the Jewish Quarter. There was, however, a legal anomaly in the way this property was treated – it was considered by the Jordanians as “enemy property,” which was under the administrative jurisdiction of a custodian. But Israel was the enemy and the Jews who owned the land in the ancient Jewish quarter were not Israeli; properly, this land should have been treated as privately owned land.
The land that had been purchased by Bajaoi in 1807 was leased by Jordan to the municipality of Hebron, which in turn sublet it to Arab merchants, who in the early 1960s, established a fruit and vegetable market was there.
After Israel took Hebron in 1967, legal anomalies persisted. The IDF now leased the land to the Hebron municipality and the market continued to function. By the 1990s, lease agreements had expired, and the market was then finally closed for security reasons.
The Israeli government, however, denied numerous requests by the Jewish community to rent the structures remaining from the market place, and the site was left vacant. After the baby Shalhevet Pass was murdered on March 26, 2001 by a sniper located very close to the site of this market, the decision was made to occupy it for reasons of security. The Hebron community invested tens of thousands of dollars converting the former fruit and vegetable bins into livable small apartments. The neighborhood – named Mitzpe Shalhevet – housed Hebron families and a Torah study hall established in memory of Shalhevet Pass.
Shortly after the families moved in, an Arab demand was made to reclaim the market. In response, the attorney general’s office filed papers with the Supreme Court indicating that the Arabs had no remaining legal rights to the market, and that Israeli “trespassers” would be evicted from the site. The Supreme Court issued no ruling.
After an eviction order was issued, requiring the residents to vacate Mitzpe Shalhevet, the Jewish community of Hebron appealed. An appeal committee of three judges ruled, 2 to 1, that the land did belong to a private Jewish organization, but that the buildings – which were of Jordanian origin – legally fell under the jurisdiction of the Israeli government as the custodian of captured property. The recommendation made was that the structures be leased to Hebron’s Jewish community. The attorney general, who rejected this compromise, explained that “The criminal must not be rewarded.” In this case, it was the Jewish residents of Mitzpe Shalhevet who were considered to be “criminal” because they had not secured IDF permission to move into their homes.
Following an extended delay in executing the eviction order, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz applied pressure upon then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to remove the families. When the residents were given until February 15, 2006 to vacate, protesters by the hundreds gathered to lend support, and the area was declared a closed military zone.
What appeared to be an imminent crisis was then averted when an agreement was struck between Israeli army officials and the Mitzpe Shalhevet residents, who were assured that Jewish acquisition of the buildings was to be expedited and that residents of Hebron would be allowed to reoccupy the neighborhood within two months. The residents then began to move out voluntarily.
Attorney General Mazuz, however, on hearing reports of this agreement, denied its existence, saying, ” There is no compromise or proposed compromise from the state on the evacuation of the wholesale market structure in Hebron…The state has not made any obligation to repopulate the concerned structures.”
“The residents then replied, “We have an agreement in our hands. We intend to honor it and we expect and are certain that the other side will also honor it.”
“The other side” – the State of Israel – did not honor it. Mazuz claimed that the Israeli Army had no jurisdiction to strike such an agreement. The neighborhood of Mitzpe Shavhelet stood empty for 18 months.
Trying Again in Mitzpe Shalhevet
In mid-2007, two families grew tired of the waiting, and the failed promises, and moved back into Mitzpe Shalhevet. And once more the government decided to remove them. “We’ve been fooled too many times,” the families declared. “This time we’re not going peacefully.” The community was mindful of the fact that the court had provided a way out with its recommendation, and the government refused to take it, preferring confrontation.
Now Defense Minister Barak was making the decision in this regard. Responding to pressure from the left (and mindful, undoubtedly, of elections coming up before too very long) he decided to take action against these two families.
Barak did this in spite of the fact that the representatives of seven factions within the Knesset had appealed to him to not go this route. In July 2007 they wrote a letter to him:
“We are marking 78 years since the 1929 riots, you are faced with a fateful decision concerning one of the sites which represents, more than anything else, the murder and the thievery [committed upon] the Hebron Jewish community of those days: the site of the ‘shuk’ [market place] in Hebron, where presently several families are living…We are dealing with Jewish-owned land, which was stolen as a result of the terrible slaughter. It is incumbent on the government to act to return the stolen property as would be expected in relationship to stolen Jewish property anywhere in the world.
“We the undersigned, chairmen of various parties in the Knesset, turn to you with this request to refrain from expelling these Jewish families living in the ‘shuk’and to study alternative ways to resolve Jewish quarters at this site, legally…
“The residents of Hebron prevented violence and conflict… when they voluntarily moved out of these homes, based upon promises that they would be allowed to return, honoring and respecting promises of representatives of the state, IDF officers. This type of approach is to be encouraged and rewarded, not discouraged…
“For all the above reasons, we request, that you order that the issue of Jewish residency in the ‘shuk’ be studied seriously, and that in any case, you prevent, for the time being, any eviction of Jewish residents from the site.”
On August 6, 2007, government forces evicted the families from the shuk and destroyed the neighborhood.
In April 2006, the Jewish community of Hebron acquired a new building adjacent to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. The process had taken years, with lawyers guiding every step of the way to ensure that all was in order. The building was named for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak Shapira, who was killed by terrorists at the site during Sukkot in 2003. Three families, with a total of 20 children moved in.
A month later, the residents were forcibly expelled from the building because police investigators decided, even before seeing the originals, that the papers were forged; the Supreme Court, accepting the government position, moved the case to a different court but said that the building had to be vacated in the meantime. The Court rejected a petition from Hebron residents that there be a temporary injunction against the eviction order until a decision was made on the authenticity of the papers.
Hebron Jewish community spokespersons have made it clear that this action was political in nature: Decisions to act on this were made at the highest political levels even before papers were examined; the fact that the prior Arab owner of the building denied selling it to Jews was to be expected – as an Arab takes his life in his hands when selling to Jews.
Orit Struck, spokesperson for the Hebron Jewish community, called the action “anti-Semitic.” Resident Merav Melamed said that it’s only recently “that Jews have been trying to expel Jews from Hebron.”
As the Hebron Jewish Community is confident that the papers regarding the acquisition of Beit Shapira are fully in order, they expect that this situation will be rectified in due course. However, the course will lengthy, and they are now preparing for a legal battle.
Beit Hashalom (House of Peace)
In the spring of 2007, Jewish residents of Hebron moved into a new building that the community had acquired: This is a large four-story structure on the road that leads from Kiryat Arba to the Cave of the Machpelah (“worshippers’ way”), and is within the Israeli area of Hebron. It was considered a particularly noteworthy acquisition both because it will permit several more families to live in Jewish Hebron, and because the presence of Jews on this road will provide security to worshippers going to pray in the Machpelah. (There have been incidents on this road, and the IDF has used the roof of this building as a lookout.)
It had been purchased, after lengthy negotiations, from the former Arab owner via Jordan, for the sum of $700,000; legal documentation for this exists. The Jews took occupancy before renovations had been done because of rumors that Arab squatters were about to move in; that renovation is now in process.
As soon as Jewish occupancy took place, Arab challenges to Jewish rights to the property began. Appropriate agencies of the Israeli government now have the issue under investigation.
At one point, before all documentation had been reviewed, the police leaked a “suspicion” that documents might have been forged: this reflects a hostility to the residents of Hebron that has become almost commonplace. Left wing organizations, most notably the Peace Now organization, promote the notion that there should be an all-Arab Hebron – and that any Jewish presence infringes on Arab rights and is counterproductive to “peace.”
The Jewish community of Hebron was confident of the propriety of the documents they have presented to authorities.
However, the Israeli Hugh Court of Justice has ruled that the purchase agreement was not legal, and Israeli armed forces are now positioned to evict the residents of Beit Shalom.
Why Jews stay in Hebron
To live in Hebron is not an easy thing to do. Yet there is a solid core of Jewish residents who are deeply devoted to remaining. Their dream is to ensure forever the right of Jews to have access to this ancient city of sanctity and to live again in areas that have been Jewish for millennia.
Hebron spokesman David Wilder writes about visitors to Hebron who spoke with the Arab mayor, Mustepha Natsche. “Were Jews allowed to pray at the Cave of the Machpelah”? they asked.
“No,” he replied, “it is a mosque and only Muslims may pray at a mosque.” Other Muslims have reiterated the same approach.
Without a Jewish presence in Hebron, the second holiest site in Judaism would be closed to the Jewish people.