Hebron, called al-Khalil in Arabic, has an estimated population of 120,000, and is the second largest city in the West Bank. It is an ancient city, located about thirty kilometers south of Jerusalem, and serves as a major manufacturing center for the West Bank. Hebron is also a place of considerable religious significance. At the center of the city is the Ibrahimi mosque, reputed to have been constructed over the biblical Cave of the Patriarchs (Cave of Machpelah), said to be the burial site of the "patriarchs and matriarchs" of Judaeo-Christian-Muslim monotheism-namely, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. Hebron's population is overwhelmingly composed of Palestinian Arabs, most of them Muslim, but some five hundred Jewish settlers also reside in the heart of the city, and another 7,000 Jewish settlers reside in two larger settlements on its outskirts.
Tensions between Palestinians and Jews in the town have repeatedly resulted in severe outbreaks of violence, notably - but by no means exclusively - in 1929 and 1994. On August 23 1929, amid anti-Jewish riots in much of Palestine, sixty-seven Jewish residents of Hebron were brutally murdered by Palestinian Arabs, with some of the victims being raped, tortured, or mutilated.1 Other Palestinian Arabs sheltered their Jewish neighbours; today the Zionist Archives preserve a list of 435 Jews who found a safe haven in twenty-eight Palestinian Arab homes in Hebron during the carnage.2 Jewish residents left Hebron in the years following the 1929 massacre, and for today's Israeli settlers in Hebron it remains a potent symbol: in November 2000, a large sign could be seen near the Palestinian market next to the Avraham Avino settlement in central Hebron: "This market was built on Jewish property, stolen by Arabs, after the 1929 massacre."3
Another brutal massacre was committed on February 25, 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from Kiriat Arba, entered the Ibrahimi Mosque during prayer time and shot to death twenty-nine Palestinian Arabs before he was himself killed by angry onlookers.4 The Israeli authorities condemned the crime but many settler leaders in Hebron refused to do so.
Hebron was part of British mandate Palestine from 1917 until 1948 when, together with the rest of what became known as the West Bank, it was unilaterally incorporated into Jordan following the Arab-Israeli war that accompanied the establishment of the state of Israel. It remained under Jordanian rule until Israel occupied the West Bank during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
After the 1967 war, Gush Emunim and other settler organizations initiated a new movement within Israel to reclaim all of the biblical land of Israel (referred to as Eretz Israel), and it was in furtherance of this aim that Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his colleagues established in 1968 a small presence in a hotel in the middle of Hebron during Passover. Their enterprise was not immediately authorized by the Israeli government but it gained support from a number of Israeli political leaders and a few weeks later the settlers moved to a nearby IDF military compound. Thereafter, the government authorized the settlers to establish a town on confiscated Palestinian land on the outskirts of Hebron, Kiriat Arba, now one of the largest Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Kiriat Arba and another large settlement, Givat Harsina, also located on the outskirts of Hebron, have a combined population today of some 7,000 Jewish settlers.5 In addition, four smaller Jewish settlements-Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano, Avraham Avino, and the most recent, a group of caravans known as Tel Rumeida-with a total population of around five hundred settlers, have been established in the Palestinian-populated heart of the old city, where they are under constant IDF protection. Dozens of other rural settlements are scattered throughout the wider Hebron district.
As an area of particular and protracted tension, the city of Hebron was accorded special attention during the peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that led to the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and Israel's partial withdrawal from the West Bank. Under a separate 1997 Hebron redeployment agreement, Israel agreed to cede authority for most of the city of Hebron (defined as "H1") to the Palestinian Authority, but maintains full control over the area surrounding the four downtown Hebron settlements and the Ibrahimi Mosque (defined as "H2"), an area that includes some 30,000 Palestinian residents.6
4 For a detailed account of the massacre, see Palestinian Human Rights Information Center, The Massacre in Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi Al-Sharif: Context and Aftermath (Jerusalem: PHRIC, 1994). On the rise in tensions in Hebron following the massacre, see B'Tselem, "Impossible Coexistence: Human Rights in Hebron Since the Massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs," September 1995.