Thousands at Ma’arat HaMachpela in Hebron – Succot, 2011 (all photographs – David Wilder)
But in Hebron, there’s also public preparation. Getting ready for the tens of thousands who flock to Ma’arat HaMachpela, the tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. For a month prior to Rosh HaShana, through the high holy days, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, following into the joy of Succot, the feast of Tabernacles. The festive worship services, the music festival, children’s plays and activities, thousands upon thousands walking the streets of Hebron. During this time alone, over the week-long Succot holiday, well over 50,000 people visited Hebron. Over the month and a half we probably came close to 100,000. That’s a lot of people. Very exciting, very invigorating and refreshing, very supporting, very addictive. You want to see it happen again, and again, and again.
In conjunction with our United States partner, the Hebron Fund, this Succot we offered a special VIP tour to select supporters. Two busloads of friends, mostly from the United States, participated in this unique event. They attended an exceptional luncheon at the Yeshivat Shavei Hebron succah, and heard a particularly moving speech from Hebron’s police chief, Arnon Friedman. In the past, relationships between police and Hebron citizens were such that the last person expected to speak at a Hebron event would have been a police officer. However, times have changed. You can see and hear Friedman’s address here
. Also talking to the visitors were Hebron Mayor Avraham Ben Yosef and Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum.
Police Chief Arnon Friedman with Hebron Fund Director Ari Lieberman
Additionally the group had special access to Ma’arat HaMachpela, and also attended the dedication of ‘the Ayal Park,’ in memory of our beloved resident, Ayal Noked, who passed away a few months ago, not yet forty years old, leaving a wife and ten children. One of Ayal’s dreams was the ‘greening of Hebron,’ and as such, dedicating a park in his memory, in the hopes of continuing his holy work, was more than fitting.
However, the highlight of the day was an exclusive event, that being a trip up the hill to the south of Hebron’s Jewish community, known as Abu Sneneh. In the past, prior to the 1997 Hebron Accords which split the city, this area was readily accessible to Jewish visitors. However when Hebron was divided, this area was transferred to Arab control. On the brink of the hill, overlooking the city, a ‘joint’ Israeli – Arab patrol, in two jeeps, kept a constant lookout over the city. However, when the second Intifada, or the Oslo War, as we call it, began, the Israeli jeep disappeared and the Arabs stayed. The hill became a source of shooting attacks on the Jewish community for two and a half years. It was from this hill that Shalhevet Pass was shot and killed.
Visitors atop Abu Sneneh Hill during Succot holiday
Since the end of that war the hill has been under Israeli military control, with a small base providing protection, preventing renewal of those shooting attacks at Jewish Hebron below.
Civilians don’t have frequent access to this site; once a year, during the eight days of Hanukkah, a large Menorah, built on the edge of the hill, is lit nightly. That’s about the only time during the year we make the climb up the hill (in a jeep, not by foot). This year though, we received permission to take our group of VIP visitors on a short tour of Hebron from the top of Abu Sneneh.
The Avraham Avinu neighborhood from Abu Sneneh Hills
Usually I enjoy the trip to Abu Sneneh. It’s a great place to get fabulous photos. With my equipment I can get close-ups of the neighborhoods and Ma’arat HaMachpela. Kiryat Arba, kilometers in the distance, turns into a stone’s throw away. The pictures are stunning. And the visitors had a great time. None of them had ever before experienced viewing Hebron from above. Together with full explanations by Noam Arnon, the visit was a real success and a great way to reward loyal friends.
But truthfully, this time around, I left with hill with an unsettling, troublesome feeling.
Keep in mind, the talk of the day centered around one subject alone, that being Gilad Shalt. Hundreds of terrorist murderers were about to be released for our Israeli POW, held captive by Hamas for over five years. The deal was extremely controversial. Letting hundreds of murderers out of jail, for one person, could almost be called an act of desperation. Clearly the decision-makers reached a breaking point of ‘now or never.’ Shalit’s life was in their hands. Do or die.
Families of terrorist victims, felt betrayed. Rightly so. They had been promised that the killers of their loved ones would never again see the light of day. And around the country, citizens, understanding the implications of blood-thirsty terrorists again roaming the streets, feared the worst. The question was, where they would hit first. The idea of their return to terror is not, and was not, a question. It is a given.
My queasiness though, didn’t so much stem from the terrorists’ freedom. Its cause was the source of that liberation: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If Netanyahu had the guts, and also the despair to make such a decision, what might be next?
Back in 1996-1997 Hebron’s Jewish community pulled just about every string possible to prevent the accords from being signed and implemented. We made a movie showing the bloody results of shooting from Abu Sneneh. We were labeled as paranoid scaredy cats. After all, peace had arrived. Then Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu promised his hesitant ministers, ‘if one shot is fired at them, I’ll send up the tanks. You think I’d endanger the life of one Jew in Hebron?!?’
Endanger he did. Two and half years of gunfire, until the tanks were sent in. And of course he was no longer Prime Minister when the shooting started, or when it ended.
So the big question is, in my mind, what’s next? If this Prime Minister was able to send hundreds of killers home-free, for one Israeli soldier, how much guts, or despair, would it take to give Abu Sneneh back to the Arabs? How much American/UN/European/Russian/ pressure would it take to roll back the clock to the days pre-Oslo War, in Hebron and throughout Judea and Samaria?
Kiryat Arba from Abu Sneneh Hills
As I looked down at the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, at people entering Ma’arat HaMachpela, at Kiryat Arba, at Yeshivat Shavei Hebron, that question reverberated through my head, and through my body. ‘This is what the terrorists saw, this is where they took aim and shot at us. A terrorist with a good scope can see into people’s windows, into cars, kids walking on the street. Will it happen again?’
That’s the big question: will history repeat itself, will we be forced to live through it again?
After Shalhevet was killed, we renamed the area the ‘Shalhevet Hills.’ The name didn’t really stick. I sure hope we don’t have to change the name again. For the time being, I might call them the Abu Netanyahu hills, just to remind Bibi. He doesn’t have to make do with my photos. He should come and see first-hand the view from the Abu Netanyahu Hills before any other kind of ‘Gilad Shalit decisions’ about Hebron, or Judea and Samaria. Maybe it would shake him up enough to discard the thought of relinquishing Israeli control here again, forever.