Letter From Hebron

Letter from the West Bank: In Hebron, renovation of holy site sets off strife

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 8, 2010

HEBRON, WEST BANK -- The Tomb of the Patriarchs -- a site revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians as the burial place of their common forefather, Abraham -- needed bathrooms and a new roof over an outdoor prayer area. To the spokesman for Hebron's Jewish settler community, that should not have been grounds for international scandal.

"In any normal country, people would take a site like that and turn it into a nationally recognized monument," David Wilder said.

But in the West Bank, where religion and politics are inextricably tangled, what would be considered routine infrastructure improvements elsewhere can quickly set off disputes over sovereignty: Who gets to decide what's to be renovated? Who controls the building being renovated?

Demonstrators threw rocks and Israeli soldiers fired tear gas in Hebron last week after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would spend $100 million rehabilitating 150 "national heritage" sites, including Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs -- or the Cave of Machpelah, as it's known in Judaism -- and Rachel's Tomb in nearby Bethlehem. Both those sites are deep in West Bank territory that Israel occupied in 1967 and that is envisaged as part of a Palestinian state that peace negotiations could produce.

In the absence of an internationally recognized border, Israel's decision to declare heritage sites on Palestinian territory touched off sharp criticism from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Arab capitals. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned it could lead to war.

Similar disputes are playing out in Jerusalem, where Palestinians view with suspicion every Israeli excavation or archaeology project in the eastern part of the city, their anticipated capital. On Tuesday, just minutes before Mayor Nir Barkat was set to announce a plan for evacuating 20 Palestinian families from an East Jerusalem neighborhood to make way for a park, Netanyahu persuaded him to postpone the plan , citing the likely controversy.

Hebron has been the site of several massacres in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the 1929 Arab massacre of 67 Jews and the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque, which sits atop the tomb of Abraham and other forefathers, by a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein.

Some of the bullet holes in the mosque's walls remain unrepaired, a reminder of the potential for further violence. After the 1994 massacre, the site was divided into a Muslim prayer area and a Jewish sanctuary with separate entrances and checkpoints.

Hebron, too, remains divided. H1, the main part, is home to about 140,000 Palestinians. In H2, where 800 Jewish settlers live among roughly 30,000 Palestinians, the Palestinian population's movements remain heavily restricted. Shuhada Street, the principal thoroughfare, is well-paved thanks to multimillion-dollar renovations funded by the United States, but empty of Palestinian pedestrians and Palestinian vehicles.

Nearly half the shops in H2 have gone out of business since 1994 despite a U.N. effort to pay shop owners $200 a month to keep them open. In some areas near the settlements, Palestinians cannot walk unless they are residents or visit unless they have a special permit from the Israeli army. H2 has also become an odd haven for Palestinian criminals, who flee to the area to escape Palestinian police on the other side, according to international monitors and Palestinian officials.

Passing on foot through a checkpoint from H2 into H1, one enters an alternative universe, a bustling, modern Arab city filled with honking taxis, vendors and shops. Often overlooked in discussions of the Muslim-Jewish tensions here is the fact that Hebron is a thriving hub of West Bank commerce, supplying roughly one-third of the area's gross domestic product, in large part because of strong sales of marble from quarries.

Atop a steep hill, Hussein al-Araj, Hebron's governor, works in his new office, dedicated in November, which was built with money from the Malaysian government. He said he worries the inclusion of Abraham's tomb on a list of Israeli national heritage sites could transform a political conflict into a religious one, and he predicted the spat will make it harder for Abbas to resume peace talks with Israel. The Palestinian cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, held a meeting at Araj's office Monday to send a message to the world "that Hebron is a Palestinian city," Araj said.

For now, he said, Palestinian control of the city is limited to "the 20 or 30 square kilometers" of H1, where Israel still carries out what Araj said are daily incursions.

Which is it, 20 or 30 square kilometers?

Araj put on his glasses, reached into his desk and pulled out a laminated map of the area that he obtained last week from the Israeli army.

"One day they say this is H1," he said, running his finger over the map. "The other day they say that. This is why I cannot say exactly."

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