Bitter thoughts of bloodshed, past and present, mingled today in this eerily quiet West Bank city.
In the small Jewish cemetery on a hilltop overlooking the town, about 150 Israeli settlers, many carrying automatic weapons, this afternoon held their annual commemoration of the massacre of 67 Hebron Jews 54 years ago. It is an event burned into their souls, they say, something never to be forgiven or forgotten.
The settlers were guarded by an even larger array of Israeli Army soldiers, some of whom stood on rooftops and peered through binoculars at the city below.
What they saw was a ghost town, a city under curfew, where the streets were deserted, the metal door fronts of the shops clamped shut. The few vehicles on the streets belonged to the military or the police, except for the two tour buses that carried 150 members of the Emunah Women of America, a Zionist organization, to the tomb of the patriarchs and later the Jewish cemetery.
In the homes of the city's 70,000 Arabs (there are 5,000 Jews), the memories were of more recent violence and bloodshed. Three days ago, two masked gunmen assaulted the Islamic college at midday, killing three students and injuring 33. The Arabs and many Israelis are convinced that the assailants were Jewish settlers, although Israeli government officials also have raised the possibility that it was an intra-Arab affair.
In one of those homes, Mustafa Natshe, who was the acting mayor of Hebron until Israeli officials fired him three weeks ago, expressed surprise when told about the memorial service. He called it and the presence of two Israeli government ministers at the cemetery "insensitive," another sign, he said, "that the settlers can do anything and not be afraid of punishment."
The cemetery and the soldiers, the curfew and the tourists were all reminders of Hebron's tragic past and tortured present. This is a holy city, like Jerusalem a coveted city, the resting place of the ancient patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It can also be a violent city. The Jews, of course, cannot forget the 1929 massacre or the ambush, in May 1980, of six Jewish settlers who were gunned down in the street.
The Arabs recall that exactly one month after the ambush, bombs exploded in two other West Bank cities, permanently maiming their Arab mayors. Nor can they forget more recent incidents within the last year--the hand grenades that exploded on an Arab soccer field, the bomb that went off next to a downtown mosque shortly before noon prayer services were to end.
The seemingly endless cycle of violence accelerated this month. On July 7, Aharon Gross, a Jewish seminary student, was stabbed to death as he waited for a bus. Jewish settlers retaliated by setting fire to the city's central market. A curfew was imposed by the Israeli occupation authorities, Natshe was fired and replaced by an appointed Jewish official, and the elected city council was dismissed.
Then came the attack on the Islamic college, bringing a new curfew and hundreds of Israeli soldiers to the city.
"If the victim is Israeli, a curfew is imposed on the Arabs," Natshe said. "If the victim is Arab, a curfew is also imposed on the Arabs."
Natshe also questioned, without bitterness in his voice, the government's reaction to the assault on the university.
"When they dismissed me and the council," he said, "they said I was inciting the people and the result was the killing of Aharon Gross. Who incited the Jews now to kill the Arabs at the university? Was it the Jewish mayor who is now in the city? So why don't they dismiss him?"
The curfew was temporarily lifted this morning to allow residents to shop for a few hours. But trouble quickly erupted. Angry Palestinian youths threw stones at Israeli soldiers and the curfew was reimposed.
It was therefore a silent city this afternoon when the settlers and the tour group gathered on the barren hilltop with its neat rows of stone grave markings.
"This is a very sad day--we lost so many people here in 1929," said Melanie Olbaum of New York, a former national president of the Emunah Women of America. "We want to remember we lost so many for no other reason than they were Jews."
Charlotte Dachs, the current head of the organization, said she saw nothing inappropriate about going through with the memorial service today.
"The anniversary is the anniversary," she said. "We can't change that. We belong here."
The American women had left by the time the ceremony started with prayers, chanted over the sound of crackling Army radios. Then came speeches by Interior Minister Yosef Burg and Science and Technology Minister Yuval Neeman.
Burg, whose wife's brother was killed in the 1929 massacre, regularly attends the annual memorial service. Last year Neeman sent a telegram, but according to a spokesman thought that this year he should appear personally to demonstrate his support for the Jewish settlers of Hebron and the adjacent settlement of Qiryat Arba.
Burg promised that there would be increased settlement in Hebron and that by the time of the Jewish holy days in the fall there would be a rabbinical court in Qiryat Arba. Neeman promised that the government will establish a science center in Hebron.
But these promises and statements of support did not appear to satisfy the final speaker, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the leader of the Hebron settlers. He complained that Israel's "holy Army" was failing in its mission of protecting the settlers.
"We are not now in the days of 1929," he said. "We have our own country and our own Army, but an Army must rule. We cannot permit that the Army of Israel is not controlling those who incite. The government of Israel is not paying attention to its obligations."