In 1992 I visited Hebron for the first time since the 1967 war and was immediately impressed with how, of all places under Israeli occupation, it was clearly waiting to explode. That it did so on 25 February is surprising only in that a massacre did not take place earlier, although on 14 January the Army, using anti-tank missiles, destroyed a student house and killed three young Palestinians.
It is difficult to describe the sensation of entering the mosque, which, even more than Jerusalem’s al-Haram al-Sharif, is guarded with great visibility by Israeli soldiers. The entrances of the Haram are hundreds of metres away from the two mosques, al-Aqsa and Umar; at these doors, it is Palestinian security men, doubtless under Israeli supervision, who let people in and out. In the case of the Hebron mosque all visitors – Muslim or Jewish, local or foreign – enter via an Israeli security post situated right at the door through which people enter the mosque’s main area of worship.
Just inside the door there is a large table around which several Israeli soldiers sit, some of them with their feet up, all of them quite heavily armed. What one feels is that a Muslim holy place is being deliberately violated. It isn’t only that a foreign power is using its arms to dominate a lesser people, but that one of the monotheistic faiths is forcibly intruding itself on the religious practices of another.
In the mosque’s main hall of worship stand the tombs of Abraham, Jacob and Rebecca, sacred to Jews and Muslims. Before 1967 a small rabbinical school, located at the back of the mosque, had been unused for generations: after 1967 the Israelis reopened it, built a library there, and re-excavated some more Old Testament tombs (those of Leah and Isaac). The problem about the Jewish school is that you have to walk through the Muslim prayer area in order to get to it. All this makes for an uncomfortable – and very volatile – mix, with Orthodox Jews jostling pious Muslims, to say nothing of miscellaneous visitors and soldiers, in a place that covers only a few hundred square metres.
Just outside the mosque, overlooking both it and the souk (closed because of a Hamas strike the day we were there), you can see a few post-1967 settler houses. In fact, as recently as 26 January a new group, This Is Our Land, whose aim is to double the number of settlements in the West Bank, as well as to escalate tensions between Arabs and Jews, began yet another settlement in Hebron.
With Arabs and Jews intermingling in a space barely larger than a football field, and in a town which already had particularly ugly memories of inter-racial murders and riots, violence was only to be expected – not just because of the closeness of the two communities but because one has imposed itself on the other. I recall feeling extremely uncomfortable in Hebron. A general Palestinian exodus had partially emptied the place, making it seem quite desolate. But that wasn’t all: with its unarmed Palestinians and armed Israeli settlers and soldiers, Hebron is a symbol of raw religious competition quite unlike any other.