The future of Hebron's Jewish past
Until recently, I had never been to Hebron. In the past three months, however, I have twice boarded an armoured bus to make the journey. The first time was with a private, non-political group to visit Hebron's Jewish area and the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and the patriarchs and matriarchs are said to be buried.
It was a shock. If ever there was a illustration of the attempt by Islam to supersede Judaism, this was surely it. This holy Jewish shrine was to all intents a mosque. Islamic prayer mats were piled high, and there seemed to be not one Jewish artefact in the place. Even the catafalques sporting labels claiming them as the tombs of the founders of Judaism were topped by Islamic crescents.
Those labels are hung only on the handful of days per year the Jews are allowed to visit. Hebron has become a synonym in the west for oppression of the Palestinians by "crazed settlers" but it is in fact those Jewish residents who are hanging on by their fingernails to a minimal right of access to one of Judaism's holiest sites. Their presence requires the IDF to ensure that access. Without the soldiers, does anyone seriously imagine Machpelah would not suffer the same fate as Joseph's Tomb in Nablus which, after the Israelis were forced to abandon it, was burned to the ground?
It is also grotesque to call them "settlers" as if they are colonising land with which they have no connection. Jews have lived in Hebron for thousands of years but have been repeatedly driven out, as in the 1929 pogrom when Arabs slaughtered 67 adults and children.
The restored Jewish presence in a town of 130,000 Arabs is a mere 90 Jewish families, restricted to an area comprising some five per cent of the town. Far from the impression that Arab Hebron is wretched and impoverished, it is highly prosperous, delivering around one third of the West Bank's entire GDP.
This holy Jewish shrine was to all intents a mosque
By contrast, the main street in the Jewish area is like a ghost town. Every Arab shop there is closed, because the IDF decided that the shops pose a mortal threat since, in the crowds of shoppers, Jews were repeatedly attacked with knives, acid, and once in a suicide-bombing resulting in the murder of at least two people.
The Jews are sitting ducks for snipers in the Arab houses on the hill towering above - from where the bullet was fired that murdered 10-month old Shalhevet Pass in her buggy in a playground in 2001.
Real aggression towards Arabs in Hebron should be unreservedly condemned. But any fair-minded person would surely conclude that, in general, it is the Jews who are under siege from a racist and murderous aggression. Is it not perverse to say that because Jews are living in Hebron once again (where, after all, they were given the right to settle under the Mandate) that is an act of aggression?
My second trip was for a barmitzvah in Machpelah. Afterwards, we walked through the "ghost town" with Israeli flags flying, to the sound of trumpet, shofar and drum.
Triumphalist? Aggressive? It felt instead like an expression of innocence and joy in the face of evil and hatred. Yet that hatred is not universal. Friendly relations have been established between local rabbis and the remarkable Sheikh Jabari, leader of Hebron's largest clan, who some years ago prevented the planned torching of a nearby synagogue.
Sheikh Jabari has publicly acknowledged the right of Jews to live in Hebron. Recently, he welcomed and blessed a group of Jewish visitors and declared that Machpelah should unite Jews and Arabs. Alas, Sheikh Jabari does not speak for the Palestinian Authority, which is intent on using its new membership of UNESCO to stop what it calls the "Judaisation of the city".
UNESCO has recognised Hebron as a "Palestinian heritage site", demanding it be removed from Israel's own list of national heritage sites. Hebron's mayor has said that if the PA controlled the whole town, Jews would again be barred from Machpelah. UNESCO is merely the latest weapon the PA is deploying to erase the Jews from their own history.
In one corner, the PA is trying to ethnically cleanse the Jews again from Hebron; in the other, Sheikh Jabari is supporting the rights of the Jewish people to their own heritage. So which side are you on?
Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist