Inside Hebron, Israel’s Heart of Darkness

On the edge of this troubled city in the West Bank, Jewish settlers revere the grave of a mass murderer. And that’s just the beginning.

11.21.14 10:45 AM ET

HEBRON, The West Bank—The main road heading into Hebron slopes down a gentle hill past a vast Jewish settlement called Qiryat Arba, low-slung apartment blocks cut into the hillside to your left. You come to the checkpoint; the gate goes up, you drive in, and the first thing you see on your right is a couple of shops next to a landscaped plaza that’s about the size of a basketball court with a few benches and pergolas. This is Meir Kahane Memorial Park, and it is meant to tell you something.

If you’re young or forgetful, you might not remember Kahane, the far-right—in his case, fascist would not be overdoing it—Israeli politician who was thrown out of the Knesset for his plainly racist views of Arabs and was finally gunned down by one, an Egyptian-American named El Sayyid Nosair, in Manhattan in 1990.

Even Mississippi probably doesn’t have parks anymore named after Ku Klux Klan leaders. But here, a park dedicated to Kahane’s memory is the first thing you see, and this is just the beginning.

At the rear end of the park is a wall or divider maybe six or seven feet high and about twice that wide. You go behind it, and you see a plain tombstone. It holds the body of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 walked into the Mosque of Ibrahim just down the road, wearing his army uniform and carrying a machine gun, and murdered 29 Muslims and wounded another 125 before being overwhelmed and killed by worshippers his bullets had missed. He had lived in Qiryat Arba.

The inscription says in part: “The revered Dr. Baruch Kapel Goldstein… Son of Israel. He gave his soul for the sake of the people of Israel, The Torah, and the Land.  His hands are clean and his heart good… He was assassinated for the Sanctity of God.” If you remember the end of Schindler’s List, you’ll recall that the now-elderly Jews saved by Oskar Schindler filed past his tombstone and placed small stones on it, signs of mourning and respect. When I visited Goldstein’s grave, about 40 small stones rested on the slab. Mourning and respect.

In 1997, under an agreement reached by (interestingly enough) Benjamin Netanyahu and Yassir Arafat, the city of 250,000 or so was divided: H1 and H2. The former is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the latter by the government of Israel. Hebron hadn’t been particularly notable for anti-Jewish violence, even during the intifadas. According to the human-rights group B’tselem, from 1987 to 2007, Palestinians killed five Israeli civilians and 17 soldiers (Israeli security forces killed 88 Palestinians). But the settlers are a formidable constituency and felt threatened having all those Palestinians around. In 2000, the Israeli government simply closed the portion of downtown Hebron under its control.

It’s quite a thing to see. It’s not a downtown in any American sense. It’s all very low-slung, two or at most three stories, and there is nothing remotely resembling urbanity. It has something like the look and feel, allowing for the obvious historical differences, of many a dying small town I’ve driven through back in West Virginia. Except this one isn’t dying. It is dead.

Nearly 2,000 Palestinian-owned shops have been closed. As you walk down Shuhada Street, you see one shuttered storefront after another; hundreds of them. But at least I, and the settlers, can walk there. Along the bulk of the street, Palestinians aren’t even allowed to walk. Or drive, for that matter. A car plods down the street once every 20 minutes or so. It’s just after three, and the local schools have let out. A few children, settler children, congregate near what appears to have been the bus station.

They do so under the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers, stationed every couple hundred feet along the street, and in guard towers and on rooftops. At the western terminus of Shuhada Street, at the dividing line between H1 and H2, there’s a small security building in the middle of the street with a metal detector inside that everyone coming and going between the two sectors has to pass through. It feels like a… well, like an occupied territory.

If the Palestinian leadership had any public-relations smarts, which it seems to lack utterly, it would find its Frank Luntz (the real one won’t do it I’m fairly certain) and undertake some focus-grouping and find a new phrase. “Occupied territory” has been used to the point of being emptied of meaning; they’re just words in the news that wash over you. But in Hebron you see what it means in its most humiliating manifestation.

The current hopelessness of the whole situation is embodied more starkly in these few square miles than perhaps anywhere else in the West Bank. The city has unleashed messianic passions since biblical times. In 1929, their minds seized by false rumors of Jewish violence against Arabs in Jerusalem, Arabs murdered around 65 Jews. Under the Jordanians, who took over after Britain left and controlled Hebron until 1967, many signs of the Jewish presence were erased. Then when Israel took over after the ’67 war, the process started working in reverse: Qiryat Arba was established the following year, and then came Goldstein, and finally, the “separation policy.” Memories are long. As Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence (a group of ex-soldiers who give public accounts of actions they were ordered to take to enforce the occupation) put it to our group: “If for the Israelis 1929 happened two weeks ago, for the Palestinians, Goldstein happened yesterday.”

None of it bodes well for tomorrow.