No peace without Hebron – the city that killed Oslo

As horrendous as the massacre was, it was the Israeli response that proved to many Palestinians that the Oslo peace process had changed nothing

Chris Doyle

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Few cities can rival Hebron for its history and religious significance. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet; it is the second holiest city in Judaism, the fourth in Islam. Yet ask most people outside the Middle East where Hebron is, or where Abraham, Jacob and Isaac are meant to be buried - they would struggle. The trouble is Israeli, Palestinian, Arab and U.S. politicians are ignoring Hebron too, a mistake that history suggests could be costly.

Twenty years ago on Feb. 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli settler, walked into the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron. He sprayed bullets into the crowd of Muslims at prayer killing 29, the start of what was then to become the bloodiest day in the occupation. Over the next eight days, 33 other Palestinians were killed.

Inspired by Goldstein’s actions

As horrendous as the massacre was, it was the Israeli response that proved to many Palestinians that the Oslo peace process had changed nothing. It was not the settlers that were punished but the Palestinians. The settlers roamed free in Hebron whilst Palestinians were put under curfew for six weeks. On multiple visits at the time, I saw confidence in the talks flooding away. Pictures of Arafat were being burnt across the occupied territories. The Palestinian peace camp was fatally undermined. Then 40 days after massacre Hamas responded with a suicide bombing at Afula followed up by another at Hadera seven days later with 15 people being killed. Israeli public confidence in the Oslo process also dissipated. Its peace camp also suffered.

As horrendous as the massacre was, it was the Israeli response that proved to many Palestinians that the Oslo peace process had changed nothing

Chris Doyle

Rather than disarm the settlers Rabin chose to do nothing. He failed to confront this extremist ideology and propagated the myth that Goldstein was one mad, bad apple rather than part of a broader extremist settler ideology. Even today there is a memorial to Goldstein in the settlement of Kiryat Arba. Yigal Amir, the man who killed Rabin, admitted to being inspired by Goldstein’s actions.

The settlers and their supporters including Netanyahu, who opposed Oslo, had won. Hamas likewise felt it had triumphed. Goldstein’s actions precipitated the events and atmosphere that killed off Oslo. It never recovered.

Oslo got its revenge on Hebron. As part of the Oslo process, the Hebron agreement in 1997 divided the city into H1 under the Palestinian authority and H2, about a fifth of the entire city including the main historical and religious sites, under full Israeli control. As with so much of the occupation, what was meant to be a temporary division looks depressingly permanent.

Two different worlds

Hebron is now two different worlds. The Palestinian one is a crowded vibrant commercial hub but a body without a heart. The Israeli one an eerie “ghost town” that looks like an abandoned medieval film set. As you walk round, you cannot believe it is real, a senseless waste of some of mankind’s most historic real estate.

Israeli settlers get five-star protection. They get sterile buffer zones - sterile equalling Arab free. Up to 4000 Israeli soldiers are stationed to protect the 850 settlers, the most extreme in the entire West Bank. Those settlers make up just 0.5% of the city’s population yet have quasi-exclusive control over 20%. It is the explicit mandate of the soldiers to protect the settlers. If settlers beat up Palestinians they rarely interfere.

The partition is fashioned by over 120 obstacles to movement including 18 checkpoints. Life is so tough, many Palestinians have had to abandon their homes in H2. The Israeli authorities closed the meat and vegetable markets. Over 1800 shops have been closed, many with their doors welded shut. Shuhada Street is the principal thoroughfare running through the Old City but since 1994, Palestinians vehicles were denied entry, and since 2000, Palestinians cannot even walk along most of its length. Non-Palestinians, especially the settlers, of course can. Palestinians residents of Shuhada Street cannot exit their front doors. Young or old, they have to clamber out on to their roof and exit to the rear; all to ensure an Arab-free street.

Israelis have also been killed in Hebron but this partition has little to do with security and everything to do with conquest and control. Given how tense and dangerous Hebron is, and its acute sensitivity to all sides, it is amazing that there is so little comment about the city in discussions about peace. The status quo is not just unsustainable but guaranteed to lead to further violence, even massacres. Its wrecking potential is up there with Jerusalem, refugees and Gaza.

To breathe life into his peace process, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will need to push a solution that breathes life back into Hebron. The settlers cannot hold the fate of the city hostage any longer and their exclusivist fanaticism should not be indulged. There are possible solutions to the city but these need to be debated and developed now before Hebron sees off yet another peace process.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in in April, November, December and January 2013 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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