Skip to content
Our Archives
Link copied to clipboard

To Arab and Jew, it is theirs

On a hill overlooking this ancient town, where bulldozers have hacked away the vine-covered terraces, Muhammed Rabah Drese scuffled his feet through the dust and stones, his shoulders hunched with the weight of dejection and pain. “I used to be a gentleman,” said Drese, 53. “Now, I’m on the ground like a worm."

HEBRON, Occupied West Bank – On a hill overlooking this ancient town, where bulldozers have hacked away the vine-covered terraces, Muhammed Rabah Drese scuffled his feet through the dust and stones, his shoulders hunched with the weight of dejection and pain.

"I used to be a gentleman," said Drese, 53. "Now, I'm on the ground like a worm.

"All this was grapes," he said with a sweep of his arm to the rocky hill and the fresh gouges of dirt. "There, on the top, was my grandfather's house. Mine was near those trees where the stones still lie. There were peaches here, the apricots there…"

It is hard for a visitor to see it all as Drese still can in his memory. The hill now is bare but for a few fig trees that somehow escaped the earthmovers. A new road, 40 feet wide, unused and half-paved, now climbs up the hill to five flat, dusty plots, each the size of a football field.

On one plot, behind a chain-link and barbed-wire fence, a steel-walled factory building has attracted a bevy of cranes and forklifts. Soon factories will stand on the other plots to form the industrial park for the new Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba.

It has been several years since Drese first learned that his 125 dunams (about 30 acres) would be taken by the West Bank's Israeli military government for the benefit of new settlers.

He had been notified, he recalled, but somehow it didn't seem as if it could be true. "This was my grandfather's," he said, "this was my great-great-great-grandfather's grandfather's…"  And as he spoke, he flicked his hand over and over, brushing away the generations his family had farmed in the Judean hills.

"One day they came to me at the market and told me, 'The Jews are working your land.'  I went crazy. I stood right here and threw stones at the bulldozer until they made me go away and there was nothing 1 could do."

Drese is quieter now, like all of Hebron in the tenth year of Israeli occupation. Like other farmers and townspeople, he bides his time. And he remembers.

"There were here 2,700 grape vines, 30 fig trees, 25 peach trees, two wells for water, 33 almonds, four pomegranates, 10 pears, four olives and two nuts," Drese said.

"They asked me to take money – 3 million Israei pounds!  But I don't sell my grandfather's land. It is my sister. My daughter. How could I sell my land?"

Suddenly Drese turned and scrabbled over a pile of rocks, up the hill to a terrace yet unbroken, where he burrowed for a moment, then returned. Then, slightly out of breath, and without another word, as if not another word was needed, he presented in his palm to be seen and felt a little mound of brown, sweet soil.

The future of the Mideast hinges on the future of West Bank hills, on land so sweet and so sacred to all who have held it.

The old stone town of Hebron, clinging to the hills without changing their shape, has been lived in for 6,000 years. For most of those years, the town has been held sacred as the home of Abraham, the first Jew, the first man to proclaim that there is one God.

King David ruled here for seven years before moving to Jerusalem. The three Jewish patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and their wives were buried in a cave in the center of town. A mosque has stood over the mouth of the cave for more than 1,300 years.

An ancient Hebrew legend holds that Hebron is also the burial place of Adam and Eve, that they lived here after their expulsion from Eden.

When the Israelis conquered the West Bank and returned to build a settlement here, they called the collection of white cement and stone flatblocks Kiryat Arba, the Town of the Four, for the biblical figures whose graves lie here.

To the Arabs, this land is sacred not only because of the patriarchs – regarded by Muslims as major prophets – but because they have farmed the hills for thousands of years.

In the Judean hills, farming is done not acre by acre, but inch by inch. Like Drese, the farmers know every tree, every stone that halts the plow, every life-giving spring. It is a difficult land, one that turns to barren scrub and stone if neglected even for a year.

But with care and sweat, constant reverent tillage and terracing, these hills become a patchwork of bright greens and deep browns, and bring forth tons of fruit.

When the sun warms the stones and soil and the earth is turned behind plodding hooves, the ground itself gives off a smell so sweet that even the donkey straining at the plow seems to quicken his steps with gladness, and it seems clear why man would have invented a God or know the God who invented man – to be able to give thanks for this land.

To Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, as to other Arab leaders, this land is Palestine. This is the land on which Sadat hopes to create an independent Palestinian state. Its people are the people for whom he demands self-determination.

To Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel, as to almost every other Israeli, this is Judea and Samaria, home of the forefathers and as much a part of Eretz Yisrael as Tel Aviv or Haifa. International politics forbid Begin to claim the land for Israel. Internal politics and a lifetime of Zionist principle forbid him to give up the right of the Jews to settle these hills under force of Israeli arms.

To the U.S. mediators, the conflict of the West Bank is the thorniest problem of wording on the way to a declaration of principles for a peace agreement that could end the region's wars.

To the residents of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, the conflict is a fact of life, every day, every moment the sun gleams off the plate glass of the apartments above or warms the stones of the ancient town below.

When the sun beats down on the quonset hut serving as a temporary yeshiva, the young men of Kiryat Arba strip to the shirts under their army fatigues to continue reading the Talmud.

It will be cooler in the imposing new cement yeshiva being built next door. Now it is hot and crowded and loud, with the 20 voices raised in the reading of the ancient laws and commentaries.

"It says in the Halacha (religious law) you're supposed to study out loud," explains a pleasant, freckled young man named Hillel Rinuss. He has to shout to be heard.

Rinuss, 21, lives in Kiryat Arba on a four-year army-yeshiva program that allows him to continue his studies. These are the only single people allowed in the eight-year-old settlement. The rest of the population is made up of slightly more than 300 families, with an average of four children each, obeying the biblical commandment to "be fruitful and multiply."

Rinuss is not happy with the size of the settlement. "Kiryat Arba has to be – that is what is written – in five to 10 years close to 100,000 people," he said. It is unclear whether the commandment comes from the Old Testament or the Israeli ministry of planning.

In fact, he is not happy with the whole plan of settlement. "Kiryat Arba," he said, "has to be inside Hebron itself. But today, it's here because our prime minister and the political situation won't let us live in Hebron."

Like every resident who talks about his barbed-wire enclave, Rinuss, who came to Israel from New York 12 years ago, wends his way back to Abraham. "As a Jew," he said, "we learn that Hebron is the first city our forefather Abraham lived in and built."

He conceded that the Arab residents might all have ancient historical precedents here. "But they're not as old as ours," he said.

A fellow student, David Wiskott, 22, who came to Israel five years ago from Westphalia, West Germany, put down his Talmud to disagree.

"Our right and our duty to govern this country is not based on history," said Wiskott. "This place does not belong to us because Abraham stayed here. It belongs to us because God gave it to us. This country was given to our people by the One who made this country and all the others."

Wiskott and Rinuss said they would stay in Kiryat Arba until the Jews had sufficient control of Hebron to allow them to live in the old town itself. They are resigned, if necessary, to a lifetime of confrontation with the Arabs.

"Throwing the Arabs out would be the most humane solution to the demographic problem," Wiskott said. "If we don't want to be another South Africa with a rule by a small minority, the most humane and lifesaving solution would he to put all the Arabs on trucks and carry them outside."

This, said Rinuss, is a commandment. It is written.

"There is one of the oldest books of law, the Rambam (of Maimonides)," he said. "And one of the laws teaches us that we are not just allowed to throw Arabs out of the country hut we have to if we believe – and even if we are not sure – that the Arabs want to hurt us, and it doesn't matter in what way."

Wiskott said that this was the only reasonable conclusion.

"You can solve this conflict by removing either side," he said. "It is more logical to remove the side that has neither the historical nor the divine right."

In the meantime, he said, the 50,000 Arabs in Hebron must be kept in line by force of arms and intimidation.

"The minute the Arabs are no longer afraid," he said, "they will do again what they did in 1929."

In 1929, a Jewish community that had lived in Hebron for about 3,000 years fled west and north after an Arab riot that left 67 Jews dead and about the same number wounded.

The date is seminal for Arabs and Jews.

There have been, to be sure, hundreds of times when violence ruled this land. The West Bank was Hittite when the first Jews arrived. It was conquered in turn by Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Turks and Britons.

Violence reigned in 1936, when Arabs drove Jewish settlers off farmlands near Hebron; in 1948, when the Arab nations attacked the new nation of Israel and carved the West Bank out of the British map of Palestine, and in 1967, when the Israelis overran the Jordanian Army and occupied all lands east to the Jordan River.

But 1929 is the key year because it marked the first in which the bad feeling between Arabs and Jews vying for control of Palestine under the British mandate flared into bloodshed.

The scars from that riot 50 years ago have yet to heal.

Israelis remember the years after 1929, when religious Jews could not enter the tomb of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to pray. The Jews were prohibited from coming any closer than the seventh step of the building that covers the tomb.

Jewish settlers of Kiryat Arba consistently violated their government's regulations that attempted to set aside separate hours for Jews and Muslims to pray in the tomb.

In 1976, violence recurred when pieces of the Koran were found on the floor of the patriarch's tomb, then several Torah scrolls were desecrated and torn by Arab youths.

Sit-ins and demonstrations by Kiryat Arba residents in the ancient buildings that were the Jewish quarter of Hebron before 1929 led to another series of ugly incidents and forced the military government to fence off the old Jewish quarter, prohibiting anyone from entering.

In the half century since the riots in Hebron, part of the old Jewish quarter had become a market; the closing of a section of the market led to increased bitterness.

Now, for the most part, the Jews keep to Kiryat Arba and visit Hebron only in groups, to pray or shop. The Arabs keep to the town of Hebron, and only those who work in the new settlement cross the barbed-wire fence.

The ghettoes exist side by side, but the rift is getting wider. The gap is almost palpable on a visit to Mahye El Dien Sid Ahmed, 28, who works in the market that was established in the old Jewish quarter. His family's name is inscribed in the Israeli Golden Book for hiding members of Hebron's Jewish community from the rioters in 1929.

But now he says, shaking his head, "The Jews here come down and say, 'This is in the Bible.'  That's it, they don't care what was here.

"If you want to come in the way of peace, why do you come with the tanks from Tel Aviv, come into Hebron, into a busy market and say, 'This is mine. I want to pray. Close it'?"

The gap is equally evident in Kiryat Arba at the mention of the name of Sheikh Mohammed Ali Ja'abari, the moderate former mayor of Hebron, whom the government of Israel supported unsuccessfully for re-election against a candidate who sympathizes with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"Don't call Ja'abari a moderate to me," said Eitan Ben Yosef, 32, who has lived in Kiryat Arba for three years. "His family led the riots in 1929."

Ben Yosef is one of the few Kiryat Arba residents who says he has friends in

Like many of the Jewish settlers, he has had business with the Arabs, in the Jewish effendi-Arab laborer relationship that has developed since the settlement was built.

Unlike the others, Ben Yosef invited Arab workers to his house for coffee.

He is the most moderate of men. He wouldn't care, he said, if the West Bank returned to Arab control, so long as he was allowed to live in peace in Kiryat Arba.

He said Arabs and Jews could live in peace eventually, although he understands the bad feelings among Arabs toward the settlers. "After 30 years of propaganda," he said, "I don't expect them to love me tomorrow."

Ben Yosef is a career man in the Israeli border police. His job is to ride on patrols through Hebron, making sure trouble is stopped before it can start.

He said he felt safer in Kiryat Arba than he did in the heart of Jerusalem. He likes the fresh air, the quiet and the fact that his three-year-old daughter can walk without danger to the nursery.

His major complaint is that he was denied permission to start a Conservative synagogue by the Orthodox Jews who control the community. He displayed a letter denying his request to use community facilities for the Conservative services "since it is against the spirit of Judaism."

"Against the spirit of Judaism, can you believe that?" he asked. "They're a bunch of fanatics."

Ben Yosef said he saw no conflict between his job patrolling Arab neighborhoods and his dream of Arab and Jew living in peace on the West Bank.

"If they (Arab residents) are just going about their business, we don't bother 'em, we don't do a thing," he said. "If anything starts, we go in fast and break their arms and legs."

Confidentially, he said, he likes a little trouble.

"Really," he said, "I mean, it's a release, it lets off the tension, the steam. My wife says I always have a better sex drive after I've beaten somebody up."

On the land that used to belong to Muhammed Rabah Drese, an old man limps across a stony field, using a stout cane for balance.

He is Muhammed Issa Drese, a cousin of the former landholder. He used to have a friend in Kiryat Arba, but he hasn't seen the friend since Nov. 3, 1975.

On that day, Mohammed Issa Drese went to the gate in the chain link fence to visit his friend. The guard at the fence told him to remove the knife he always wears on his belt.

When Drese refused, the guard shot him in the groin, he said, pulling up his shirt to show the bullet hole scar.

Drese now owes the hospital 8,370 Israeli pounds. Before the shooting, he made 40 pounds a day as a laborer. He no longer works because of the injury. He said he had no way to pay the bill.

He also faces a trial on the charge of resisting the officer's attempt to disarm him

His friend in Kiryat Arba?

"After that," Drese said, "we didn't visit."

In the Hebron Jewish Settlers Store, the only Jewish business in the town, ceilings are still blackened from the last time an Arab firebomb was thrown through the window.

All the windows are covered with stiff wire. The door is guarded by a cage that makes the whole place look like a chicken coop.

The manager, Zvi Katzover, 35, said he didn't mind the damage to the building, but that business is dead because the tourists were afraid.

Katzover wants more security. "If the Arabs think for one minute the Jewish are not the boss here, they will make it just like 1929," he said. "In their hearts they hate the Jews."

He wants Jews to be able to live and work in Hebron as they did 50 years ago.

Katzover said that if the government would take businesses from the Arabs, Jews and Arabs would begin to mix and the two groups might learn to live in peace.

"It can be one city," he said. "But the terrorists and the Jordanians won't let it. If we have real peace, we can make it one city. Jews and Arabs together, if they know who is boss."

Nemer Muhammed Muser Gaet is a big, quiet, sun-wrinkled man residents call Sheikh Nemer, as a mark of respect.

He is a man of traditional courtesy. He will not show his land without dispatching young men for fruit.

He is a man of traditional veneration. As the afternoon wanes, he drops to his knees on the warm soil and bends his forehead to the ground in prayer. The index finger of his right hand points east as he bows. It is a silent affirmation that there is one God, and Muhammed is his one prophet.

And there is special reverence as he walks through his orchard, touching every tree, feeling its limbs, eyes bright as he says the name of each. "Santa Rosa (plum), apricot, fig..."

The orchard is all Sheikh Nemer has left. It is about 15 dunams, or about four acres. The Israelis took 24 dunams seven years ago. They have built nothing on it, but they fenced it off with barbed wire, and the grapes that used to grow on the terraces have withered and died.

Last year the Kiryat Arba settlement took another six dunams. Again, nothing has been built. But the construction spill from an excavation for a school was bulldozed over the top of the hill and huge boulders smashed down onto the terraces.

The land is covered with rubble. The rocks are too heavy to lift. Sheikh Nemer has tried.

Through the remaining orchard, rain has carved a raw trench that shows the rock below the soil in a deep zigzag scar. There is no way to stop the erosion after the terraces atop the hill are smashed.

At midpoint of the orchard, a small iron spike covered with concrete stands next to a nut tree. Fifty yards on, another spike obtrudes. Sheikh Nemer has not been notified, but he knows that a new string of barbed wire between the iron stakes will soon cut his orchard in half.

He recalled the first time he found that his land was to be part of Kiryat Arba. "The soldiers came at night and tied a cloth around my eyes and the eyes of my sons," he said. "They said to tell my wife good-by. Then they hit us over the head and went away. They thought we would leave the land."

And he recalled the first day he found that his land was blocked off completely by the new Israeli settlement.

"There was a new wire (fence) and they stopped me when I tried to get through to the fields. They put me in a room for a whole day and then they took me in a truck to the military governor. At night, they let me go, with this."

With a look of shame on his face and his big, hard hands shaking, he fumbled in his wallet for a brittle little paper. His shoulders bent against the wind as he tried with two fingers to unfold the yellowed sheet without tearing it.

"Internal memo," said the little paper, in Hebrew that Sheikh Nemer cannot read. "Re: Nemer Muhammed Musa Gaet. The above-mentioned has lands in the vicinity of the settlement. Allow him to till the lands."

The unsigned memo bore the stamp of the military governor's office.

Mutely, Sheikh Nemer held the paper up as if to measure its weight. Then he looked around, at his trees and his earth and the stone houses he and his father built, at all that the little paper could take away.

"You tell me," he said. "How can there be peace when they steal my land?"