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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

When Palestinians and Jews live together in a West Bank city

Updated: Mar 25, 2020


The Pasadena Star News

I met Tzipi in Hebron, the home of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and a city split between Israeli and Palestinian control in the West Bank, as part of the Olive Tree Initiative program for college students, sponsored by the University of California.

Tzipi was my tour guide for the Beit Hadassah Museum, imparting to us the Jewish history of the city and her personal family’s connection to the Hebron Massacre, in which 67 Jews were murdered in 1929. The area is critical for both peoples, with religious Zionists seeing it as a historically promised city second only to Jerusalem, and Palestinian Muslims claiming it as descendants of Abraham and specifically his first son, Ishmael.

The Hebron agreement, designed by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1997, gave 97 percent of the city to the Arab residents and 3 percent to Jews, in the form of a small town and one, now heavily decorated and guarded, half of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The resulting environment is volatile, with frequent, often militant clashes between two societies on opposite ends of the political spectrum. “It’s very usual to see on one hand this city full of people, tourists, life, children playing on bicycles, and then just down the street see a lot of violence and hate and throwing rocks and attacks and like a little war” she says. “But thank god that we have a country and the army to protect us so they won’t kill us like they,” referring to Palestinian terrorists, “wanted.”

Tzipi’s great aunt brought the family to Hebron with her husband who was studying at the Slabodka Yeshiva, an Orthodox institution for learning the Talmud which, in this case, moved from Lithuania to encourage a spiritual revival in the city. However, when her family came to Hebron to help her great aunt with a newborn baby, they were attacked by a group of Palestinian militants who, to everyone’s surprise, were friendly neighbors before that day: “The same ones that were friends, that tell them they would protect them, were the ones that came and killed them.” 70 years later, in 1988, Tzipi lost her father, who was murdered in his home: “I think it wasn’t meant specifically for my father. I remember when we came to visit as kids we walked around and all the Arabs respected him. They saw him like a rabbi, they say hello every time, and they even have small talk.”

Tzipi says living in Hebron has strengthened her views, solidifying for her that the West Bank is the land of the Jewish people, despite the bloodshed: “We have the hope and the belief that not all the time this city will be like this and not all the time there will it be terrorists around. I’m sure we’ll get to a point where it will be a free market here, and everyone who want to come and live here can live here like any other place in the world.”

However, in actuality, this confidence can be complicated for Tzipi: “A lot of places are dealing today with immigration, that some people immigrate who are nice people that want to be a part of the country and live together, and some of them are like our terrorists that want to change and want to control and might want to make Jihad.” This may represent a radicalizing trend throughout Hebron, with most of the Palestinian population so dissatisfied with their acting government that they boycott their local elections, with a minority of the population electing the Fatah party representative and accused terrorist, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, as their mayor in 2017.

Tzipi sees the future of Hebron as one in which the two peoples would coexist. She looks back fondly on her grandfather’s stories about friendly Arab neighbors, and blames Palestinian leaders, including Mayor Sneineh, for the violence: “Personally, Jews and Arabs can live together. But what is going around is society pushing them against a life together.” Additionally, she believes religious leaders are often responsible for the incitement, telling Palestinians, in the case of the 1929 massacre that “Jewish people are killing people all over.” After telling me the story of the Hebron massacre, she takes time to make sure I have the name of the Palestinian who saved her family, Abbou Shakel, who physically blocked the door to her great aunt’s home so that the militants could not enter. “He came with his horse and stopped the Arab people, didn’t let them come in, and they blackmailed him, and the Arabs attack him. He was maybe 75 years old, and this is why I can talk with you. Because of this old Arab man,” she says, repeating herself to make sure that I understand.

Despite hardships, Tzipi argues her daily life isn’t vastly different than it would be anywhere else. “So we start the morning by fighting the kids to wake up, and this is a very serious interpersonal problem” she says, laughing, “but people go to work like any other place in the world. We have teachers, we have managers, we have high-tech people, we have people that are students, we have people who work in the library, we have people that work in the garage, we have doctors, nurses, secretaries, and a lot of things.” However, her world is in many ways small, with many of her neighbors needing to travel outside their town for work, and most visitors only coming to Hebron for the high holidays. When I ask about her opinions on Prime Minister Netanyahu, she says happy to have a conservative political leader, but doesn’t know whether her government has the Jewish people of Hebron’s needs in mind: “He gave the Arabs control of 97% of the city and I can’t forgive him about this. I think this has made things very bad, not only for the Jews, but for the Arabs, too. But he’s today the leader and he has parties that are more right-wing, so we have a lot of support from the government.”

Though it’s easy to get desensitized the violence in the West Bank, Tzipi’s personal connection drives her to speak out, writing for multiple publications as well as her own blog on the museum’s website. After her father died, she “felt we had to scream,” but that, in the end, “this made me learn more about what’s going on, and later we came here to Hebron to be with my mother, so she wouldn’t be alone.” Now, her family commemorates the memory of her father by running a learning institution for young men to become Rabbis. However, her father’s murder has also led her to see Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a whole new light: “If you come to learn what is going on the Middle East, what is going on between the Jews and the Arabs, you have to learn what happened in 1929…What made the Arabs come and kill the Jews that live with them together? I think if you understand this, you can understand what’s going on now.”

Journalist Veronica Irwin, a graduate of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, is a senior at UC Berkeley. Last week she profiled a Palestinian activist.

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