Incongruously named Beit Hashalom (House of Peace), that building on the road from Kiryat Arba to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron has become a source of confrontation and altercations between the Defense Ministry and Israel Defense Forces, on the one hand, and the local settlers and their supporters, on the other.

What is this all about? Is it about the right of Jews to have access to one of the holiest sites of Judaism, or is it about the IDF’s duty to prevent the occupation by settlers of a building that, it is claimed, has been purchased from its Arab owner under legally questionable circumstances?

Since under the military law prevailing in Judea and Samaria, the acquisition of real estate there requires the approval of the commanding general of the area – in other words, of the minister of defense – and since that approval has not been granted at this point, the purchase, even if it was properly executed, is not considered legal. Hence, the government considers the Jewish occupants of the building as being in violation of the law and has declared its intention of forcibly expelling them from it.

The first question that arises, then, is what is the government’s policy regarding access of Jews to the Cave of the Patriarchs (or Machpelah, in Hebrew), and what is the reason for the defense minister’s not having approved the purchase of Beit Hashalom?

Next to Jerusalem, Hebron, the city of our forefathers, is the city to which Jews have the greatest historical and religious attachment. Next to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is Judaism’s holiest site. Nevertheless, following the massacre of the Jewish community in Hebron in 1929, Jewish access to the city was severely limited, and from then until the end of the British Mandate, Jews were denied entry to the Cave and were not permitted to ascend beyond the seventh step on the stairs leading to it. During the days of Jordanian occupation the city was closed to Jews altogether.

Only after the Six-Day War could Jews pray again at the Cave of the Patriarchs, and the Jewish Quarter in Hebron was reestablished. Were it not for the presence of Jewish settlers in the city, in the Jewish Quarter and in nearby Kiryat Arba, access for Jews to the Cave would probably not have been possible in recent years.

In other words, Jewish access to the Cave of the Patriarchs is dependent on the presence of the settlers in the Hebron area. This will probably be true in future years as well, regardless of any agreements that might be reached with the Palestinians or the Jordanians. Seen in this light, the acquisition of Beit Hashalom, on the road leading to the Machpelah, is a significant contribution to that end. If it is the government’s policy to assure the right of Jews to pray in the Cave, the defense minister should have instructed the commanding general to grant approval of the purchase of the building.

In the absence of such an instruction, the impression is created that the defense minister and presumably the government in general have no interest in assuring this access. On the contrary, it seems they would like the settlers to leave the area, and are reconciled to Jews in the future being denied access to the Cave of the Patriarchs and the city of Hebron in general.

If that is the government’s intention, then its tactics in recent days are certainly succeeding. Provocative statements, daily threats of imminent forcible evacuation, and the use of invectives like a “cancerous growth” to describe the settlers are provoking the expected reaction. The fringe element of youngsters from the settlement movement are drawn to the site, engage in acts of hooliganism, and promote antagonism to the settlement movement that is likely to provide support for a forcible evacuation of Beit Shalom in the days to come.

The government has to make a clear decision on whether it considers Jewish access to the Cave of the Patriarchs an inherent and legitimate right of the Jewish people, one that the State of Israel must guarantee now and in the future, or whether it considers it to be of no particular importance and is prepared to take steps that will lead to conditions that will make it difficult to exercise this right. That is the real issue in Hebron today.

This piece ran in HaAretz on November 25, 2008
MOSHE ARENS is a Former Defense Minister and Former Foreign Minister of Israel