Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of November 13, 1996

WALKING BLINDLY ON HEBRON

By Mor Altshuler



Hebron is the stepping stone to Jerusalem, and all the parties involved in the agreement knew it - except one.



THE Israeli architects of the Oslo accords consistently rejected historical perspective and pretended that the "New Middle East" had no past, only a future. But in the area known as the cradle of mankind denying history can be as delusory as claiming victory while playing chess against oneself. The resultant mistake is called Hebron, but the price could be Jerusalem.

Hebron is more than just Hebron. Like Jerusalem, Hebron has always been a symbol of conquest and domination; whoever managed to lay hold of the Machpela Cave in Hebron and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem dominated the entire Holy Land.

The cave, burial place of the Patriarchs, originally sanctified by the Jews around 4000 BC, was conquered in the 5th century by the Christian Byzantine rulers. As a sign of their victory they built a church above the original structure. In the 7th century the Moslems defeated the Byzantines and turned the church into a mosque, just like they did in Jerusalem. In the 13th century the fanatic Mameluke rulers forbade the non-Islamic inhabitants of the Holy Land to set foot inside the cave structure. Jewish pilgrims could no longer pray near the resting place of their forefathers and had to settle for the outside stairs leading up to the building.The British conquerors of Palestine let this prohibition stand. "Praying on the stairs" became a humiliating reminder of the Jews' inferior status in their own homeland, under foreign patronage. Only in 1967, when the Israeli army entered Hebron without any blood being shed, could Jews go into the site again. It was the first time in centuries, in fact, that it was open to all worshipers of all religions.

Since the days of King David, who used Hebron as a stepping-stone to conquering Jerusalem and taking over the kingdom, Hebron has been the gate to Jerusalem, the road to Jerusalem, the precedent for Jerusalem. Today, with the expected withdrawal from Hebron, anyone who expects that Yasser Arafat will settle for less in Jerusalem than he is already receiving in Hebron is being naive. in other words, in engineering the Hebron agreement, the previous government engineered the destiny of Jerusalem as a divided city once again. HEBRON as a precedent for Jerusalem means total Islamic control over the Temple Mount and eastern Jerusalem. The Jewish quarter of the Old City would be left as a small island with only a narrow corridor to enable Jewish access to the Western Wall, under the protection of Palestinian troops.

One might assume that all the parties involved in cobbling together the Hebron agreement were familiar with Hebron's history. One might further assume that they well understood that preventing Hebron from becoming a precedent for Jerusalem would be well-nigh impossible. We might suspect that the American mediators understood, even if they chose to keep quiet about it. Obviously, the Palestinians understood. Just recently Arafat inflamed a crowd in Dehaishe near Bethlehem, declaring that the Palestinians had only one word, which he repeated thrice: "Jihad, Jihad, Jihad!"

His message could hardly have been clearer. Jihad is Arafat's code word for his attempts to revive and replay the Islamic myth of conquering the Holy Land. Jihad is the code for a crusade that will end only when absolute Islamic domination of Jerusalem is achieved. Hebron is an essential stage in that crusade.

It seems, then, that only one party failed to understand what the Hebron agreement implied: Israel. Did Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres realize the full implication of their actions, or did they choose to ignore it? As far as Rabin is concerned, we cannot know. As regards Peres, however, the answer is clear.

Peres declared more than once that he did not care for history, because history had no meaning or significance, and could teach us nothing. Ancient memories and historical perspective, it seems, only disturbed and interfered with his vision of a "New Middle East." Ignoring history, denying history, being blind to the historical consequences of his deeds -- wasn't Peres the blind pretending to lead the blind?

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Mor Altshuler is a writer and historian, who teaches Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University.