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Hevron in Those Days and Now

The first time I visited the Hevron Casba was in 1976, a couple of days after Purim. I was looking for a yeshiva in which to learn. Two guys I knew from Australia were learning at Yehivat Nir in Kiryat Arba. I caught the number 34 bus, originating in Yerushalayim, as it passed Alon Shvut where I had now been living for all of a week. The Kirya as it is affectionately called, was the closest location Jews were allowed to live to Hebron. Even prayers inside the Cave of Patriarchs at that time were limited.

I met my friends at the yeshiva. They introduced me to some of the Israelis (there were only five non-Israelis in the yeshiva at that time). I met Rav Eliezer Waldman, the head of the academy, who advised me to go to Ulpan for a while before coming to his school as all lessons were in Hebrew. (I took his advice, for a couple of months at least.)

Then my friends said, "Formalities out of way. Let's go down to Hevron". They told all kinds of stories of the goings-on between the Jews and local Arabs over the previous months. These were heady times.

We took an Israeli along for the ride, one who was looking for an excuse to skip a class or two. He carried an uzi submachine gun -- everyone at the school seemed to carry one -- it felt good to have one with us in the centre of Hevron, surrounded as we were by a sea of Arabia.

Ten minutes later, the four of us arrive in downtown Hevron. Through a hole in the fence protecting the Kirya, and down the steep hill. We drop into the Cave of the Patriachs, Ma'arath haMechpela, and then onto the Casba, the suq, the ancient open-air market. The first buildings were erected here during the thirteenth century. As a result, everything is narrow and crowded . . . and dirty, grimy and filthy to boot.

The first thing I notice is the gaze of the locals -- all of them, without exception. They have a strange, eerie stare as they look at you, their eyes obviously filled with hatred, looking at you and simultaneously straight through you, a wish for your nonexistence. But the look of hatred is accompanied by a fear, as if to say, "We hate you but we're too scared to touch you".

It is less than nine years since the Jewish (re)conquest of Hevron, less than nine years since Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook's call, "Have we forgotten Shechem! Have we forgotten Hevron!" The people of the Kirya have forced the Israeli government's hand in establishing Kiryat Arba, but not succeded in returning to the heart of Hevron. Other than in the Kirya, the three yishuvim, settlements, of Gush Etzion represent the only Jewish presence in former "Jordanian" territory*.

The left wing still can't decide what to do with these "liberated territories". At first they awaited a phone call from Jordan's king Hussein to say he was sorry for being a "naughty boy" and joining those nasty Syrian and Egyptian ratbags in attacking Israel in 1967.

But the call did not materialise. It never came. So they did nothing -- other than deploy the military. Of course they couldn't make these territories part of Israel. It was probably due to Ben-Gurion and Rabin's action in drowning four million rounds of ammunition in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Altalena** in 1948 that lost these regions to Israel in the first place.

For some reason, still not entirely apparent, the Israeli Left always had a soft spot for the "little king" as they affectionately refer to Hussein. In 1976, then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, on a visit to Alon Shvut, announced that he looked forward to visiting again, soon, "on a Jordanian visa in his Israeli passport"!

Eventually I returned to Kiryat Arba to study full time. We would often visit the Casba. It consisted of one long, narrow, pedestrian street, shops on either side, and a couple of side alleys. All kinds of things were made and sold here. It was always packed with people, a noisy marketplace. We could buy [Jordanian] Pepsi-Cola and 7-Up, then not available in Israel. There were blacksmiths, tanneries and other workshops. Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, grown in the region. The butcher shops were interesting. Ever seen a skinned camel hanging from a meat hook at your local meat supplier, exposed hump and all? Some shops sold what looked like worthless knickknacks and trinkets. Illegal [in Israel] flick knives and daggers were sold for a song. During the fast month of Ramadan, the markets were saturated with sweet pastries.

We mainly bought fruit and pita bread in Hevron. In Kiryat Arba there was one single makolet, grocery store. The two owners had a fight, and up came a wall in the middle of the premises. Now there were two small retail establishments, each selling identical products. Boring. The Casba had huge variety. Even with the smell and the grime, it was an exciting, bustling place. Certainly not like the supermarkets with which I grew in Australia.

If someone was going to the shuk with a weapon, we, the small gunless population, would accompany him. If not, we went anyway. Sometimes I went on my own. They weren't friendly down there by any means, but they wouldn't touch you; anyway they wanted our money. I'm certain we paid far more than the Arabs, but it was cheap compared to Israeli retail.

This situation continued until January 1980, two days before Tu biShvat. A young yeshiva student, an immigrant from Denmark, was in the Casba, alone, purchasing fruit for the festival. Yehoshua Saloma was murdered in the marketplace, the first Jew to be murdered in Hevron since the massacre of 1929, the British condoned carnage which instantly terminated hundreds of years of Jewish presence in the "City of the Fathers". How convenient for Westminster's policy.

A big change had occurred. A new era. Menachem Begin was now Prime Minister, having replaced the Rabin/Peres duo. The Right finally achieved power, for the first time since the establishment of an independent Jewish government in the holy land in 1948. We were in different times. At first we, in the settlement movement, thought things were looking good. But then . . . .

Camp David was signed; full capitulation in Sinai, basic agreement to give "West Bank Palestinians" rights to self-determination. The Arabs immediately sensed that the Israeli government, the accursed Jews, were about to empower them. Never to miss an opportunity, they were ready to preempt our politicians. We had lost our deterrence. Not long after Yehoshua's brutal homicide, six Jews were slaughtered outside Beit Hadassah, then occupied only by women and children in yet another attempt to force the Israeli government's hand in Hevron.

The tables had turned. Many more Jews were to die . . . and government policy, even today, has never helped settlement in the ancient holy city.

Last shabbat was the first time I entered the Casba for over thirty years. I am often in Hevron, and have photographed there extensively over the years. Since Netanyhu's laughable Wye Plantation agreements during his first prime ministerial term, the Casba is out of bounds to Jews. In line with those agreements, Hebron is divided into two sections. 97% of the city, known as H1, is allocated to an Arab municipality (today all nine members of this local council are Hamas members). The remainder, H2, including the Casba, backing onto Jewish housing, is under the Israel army rule. Though under Israeli control, Jews may only enter the Casba for one hour once a week, and then only under a heavy military escort.

The Casba has changed . . . as have the stares. The "streets" are the same. I had no trouble orienting myself. But things have changed. It does not feel the same. I am a stranger. The Europeans have moved in . . . and Arabs have moved out. The smell has gone and so have most of the inhabitants, storekeepers and shoppers.

Don't misunderstand the situation. The Europeans have absolutely no desire to live in Hevron. Even the Arabs do not want to live in the Casba any more. They'd rather live in H1 -- the streets are wider, and shops and apartments are more spacious and newer, and they don't have to see the hated Jewish Israeli.

It started with Saudi money over ten years ago, an attempt to stall further Jewish settlement in the city. They started renovating old, abandoned houses. On some they actually did a nice job.

I climbed out of a window with a few friends from Efrat back then, in the middle of the night. We intended to be found by the police the next morning, in a ruined Arab house along side the Avraham Avinu Jewish quarter, a building slated for Arab renovation and repopulation.

There we were as the sun rose, adorned in our tefillin, deep in prayer. I only realised later in the morning how precarious a manoeuvre we had performed, from the window up to the dusty ruin. I think had I seen how high up I was, and how wide was the gap, I wouldn't have done it. But we purposely selected a moonless night.

Following the Saudi initiative, the Europeans entered the fray. The Casba is plastered with donor plaques from the French, German and Swedish governments. But the "new" houses are largely empty. Well over half the stores permanently are shuttered and some of the others only open occasionally.

A landscaped, grassed park area intended for local children is populated by different kids . . . who seem to find the grass quite delicious.

I find comfort only in prophesy, both Biblical and according to our Talmudic sages in the Gemara, Midrashim and the Kabbalah. To share two with you: we are told that it is a fact, "a matter of law, that Esau hates Ya'acov" . . . and that has always been the case. I have no doubt that today's American and European administrations are the epitome of Esau in our day.

In addition the prophet Zachariyah tells us that "Jews will fight against Yerushalayim".

Menachem Kuchar, 2nd June, 2009    


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* Jordian territory Jordan annexed the "West Bank" of the Jordan River after the Israeli War of Liberation. The illegal annexation was only formally recognised by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and by Pakistan, itself on just having come into existence as a breakaway from the newly independent Indian state.

** Altalena Revisionist leader, Ze'ev Jabotinsky's Italian pen name was given to a ship transporting a huge amount of arms, sorely needed by the newly established Israel. Ben-Gurion however feared that the arms were destined for a civil war against his regime, so he ordered the boat's sinking. Menachem Begin, who was aboard the ship, claims in his book, The Revolt, that his adversary ordered the sinking because he wanted to drown Begin himself.

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