|In 1996 in his first term in office, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opened the Hasmonean Tunnels, declaring that this place was the “rock of our existence.” Following the opening, riots broke out in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Fifty-eight Palestinians and 15 IDF soldiers were killed.
Now the prime minister has fanned the flames once again, announcing that the Cave of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem are national heritage sites.
If the consequences of such political babbling were not so deadly, one could simply say populism is a necessary evil of democracy. But we have a prime minister who speaks before he thinks and, more importantly, speaks about peace with our neighbors without any serious thinking about what peace means.
This is, of course, not the first time that riots in Hebron have spread throughout the Holy Land. There was the massacre of 1929 in which 67 Jews were killed by their Arab neighbors after rumors spread that Jews were killing Arabs near the Western Wall. In 1996, with the opening of the tunnels, rumors spread that Israel was digging under the Aksa Mosque so that it would collapse.
Hebron is a very special city. No one doubts its religious importance –nor its bloody history. For Jews it has symbolized barbaric terrorism since the 1929 riots. For Palestinians, the massacre of Baruch Goldstein “matches” the Jewish memories of horror. Without diminishing from the memory of those who were brutally killed, Jews or Arabs, there is nothing special about Hebron in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are hundreds of places and dates that can be recalled from the 100 years of conflict by both sides to invoke the memory of fallen martyrs.
The massacre in 1929 does not grant any special rights to Jews to reclaim property in Hebron, any more than the rights of Palestinian refugees from Jaffa or any other destroyed villages throughout the land of Israel to reclaim their property. If one side has the right to reclaim propertyfrom before 1948, surely the other must have the same. The mutual claims on property must be dealt with at some time in the peace process.
But Hebron is a special place because of its religious significance. The period from 1949 to 1967, when Jews were denied the possibility of praying in the Tomb, is not acceptable. Any peace process must entail religious tolerance, mutual respect and a large degree of civility when it comes to the holy places of all the faiths. The religious claims of Jews regarding Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs cannot be denied by anyone that makes similar claims. People do not have to accept the truth of claims made by other religions, but they must accept that the other religions’ truths have value equal to their own.
WHEN A Palestinian state is finally created and the Israeli occupation comes to an end, Hebron will be under sovereign Palestinian rule. Jews must recognize that you don’t have to have sovereignty over every holy site or every grave. Rabbi Nachman’s grave in the Ukraine is still a sacred site for the tens of thousands who travel there to worship, even without a claim of Israeli sovereignty.
It is important that Jews have access to and are able to safely worship at all their holy sites, even those within the Palestinian state. This does not require sovereignty, and the question of the right to settle in Hebron will have to be dealt with in the framework of permanent-status negotiations and not through a unilateral act by the Israeli government. If the Palestinians wish to remove the settlers from Hebron, it would be wise of them to propose a plan that recognizes the city’s holiness to the Jewish people and guarantees the religious rights of the Jews there.
The plan should state clearly that Hebron will be under Palestinian sovereignty with arrangements for Jewish prayer on a regular basis and security guarantees for Jewish worshipers.
In recognizing that Palestinian promises of security fall short in Israeli eyes, the plan should call for international guarantees to protect those rights and to provide security. The plan should be magnanimous and enable the Jews to establish a center of learning in one of the Jewish properties and to even have a museum of Jewish heritage there.
Palestinians have an opportunity to play a constructive role in de-escalating the situation ignited by the thoughtless words of the prime minister. The Israeli government must remove the settlers from Hebron, and the sooner the better. They are among the most fanatic, dangerous people with messianic delusions and present a clear and present danger to peace in the area.
WHEN PRIME minister Yitzhak Rabin thought about removing the 500 Hebron settlers who live in constant conflict with the more than 120,000 Palestinian Hebronites, he was warned by experts that they might “pull a Masada-type suicide” and the political fallout would be too great for any Israeli government to handle. Rabin backed down, even though he had a majority in the cabinet for a decision to remove them after the Goldstein massacre.
Hebron is one of the hard-core issues that will be on the negotiating table. Palestinians can make it easier to handle. Palestinian rhetorical responses to a loudmouth Israeli prime minister will not help. An initiative aimed at recognizing and guaranteeing Jewish religious rights in Hebron would be very helpful in building public support in Israel for removing the settlers as well as creating an international willingness to assist. Hebron could explode into much larger violence at any time – but it also provides an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to head toward better chances for reconciliation.
The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (http://www.ipcri.org), and an elected member of the Israeli Green Movement political party.