For many years, the small Jewish community in the ancient city of Hebron lived in peace with their tens of thousands of Arab neighbors. But, on the night of August 23, 1929, the tension simmering within this cauldron of nationalities bubbled over and for a period of three days, Hebron turned into a city of terror and murder as the Arab residents led a rampaging massacre against the bewildered and helpless Jewish community.
By the time the massacre ended, 67 Jews lay dead – their homes and synagogues destroyed – and the few hundred survivors were relocated to Jerusalem. The aftermath left Hebron barren of Jews for the first time in hundreds of years.
Destruction at the Avraham Avinu Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter
The summer of 1929 was one of unrest in Palestine as Jewish immigrants were arriving in increasing numbers and the agitations of the mufti in Jerusalem spurred on Jewish-Arab tensions. Just one day prior to the start of the Hebron massacre, three Jews and three Arabs were killed in Jerusalem when fighting broke out after a Muslim prayer service on the Temple Mount. Arabs spread false rumors and libels throughout their communities, saying that Jews were carrying out “wholesale killings of Arabs.”
Hebron had up until this time been outwardly peaceful, although tensions hid below the surface. The Sephardi Jewish community (Jews who were originally from Spain, North Africa and Arab countries) in Hebron had lived quietly with its Arab neighbors for centuries. Theses Sephardi Jews spoke Arabic and had a cultural connection with the the Arabs of Hebron. In the mid-1800s, Ashkenazi (native European) Jews started moving to Hebron and, in 1925, the Slobodka Yeshiva – officially called the Yeshiva of Hevron Knesset Yisrael-Slobodka – was opened.
Yeshiva students lived separately from both the Sephardi Jewish community and from the Arab population. This isolation fed the Arab views that these “Zionist immigrants” were suspicious and thus hated. Despite the general suspicion, however, one yeshiva student, Dov Cohen, still recalled being on “very good” terms with the Arab neighbors. He remembered yeshiva boys taking long walks late at night on the outskirts of the city and not feeling afraid even though only one British policeman guarded the entire city.
On Friday, August 23, 1929, that tranquility was lost.
Arab youths began the riots by hurling rocks at the yeshiva students as they walked by. That afternoon, student Shmuel Rosenholtz went to the yeshiva alone. Arab rioters broke in to the building and killed him. Rosenholtz’s was but the first of dozens of murders.
On Friday night, Rabbi Ya’acov Slonim’s son invited any Jews fearful of the worsening situation to stay in their family house. The rabbi was highly regarded in the community, and he kept a gun. Many of the Jews in the community took this offer for shelter. Unfortunately, many of these people were eventually murdered there.
As early as 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning – the Jewish Sabbath – Arabs began to gather en masse around the Jewish community. They came in mobs, armed with clubs, knives and axes. While the women and children threw stones, the men ransacked Jewish houses and destroyed Jewish property. With only a single police officer in all of Hebron, the Arabs were able to enter Jewish courtyards with literally no opposition.
Jewish Home in Hebron Plundered
Rabbi Slonim, who had tried to shelter the Jews, was approached by the rioters and offered a deal. If all the Ashkenazi yeshiva students were given over to the Arabs, the rioters would spare the lives of the Sephardi community.
Rabbi Slonim refused to turn over the students. The Arabs killed him on the spot.
A few Arabs did try to help the Jews. Nineteen Arab families saved dozens if not hundreds of Hebron’s Jews. Zmira Mani wrote about an Arab named Abu Id Zaitoun who brought his brother and son to rescue her family. The Arab family protected the Manis with their swords, hid them in a cellar along with other Jews they had saved, and eventually found a policeman to escort them safely to the police station at Beit Romano.
The Beit Romano police station turned into a shelter for the Jews on the morning of Saturday, August 24. It also became a synagogue when the Orthodox Jews gathered there said their morning prayers. As they finished praying, they began to hear noises outside the building. Thousands of Arabs descended from Har Hebron, shouting “Kill the Jews!” in Arabic. They even tried to break down the doors of the station.
For three days, the Jews were besieged in Beit Romano by the rampaging Arabs. Each night, ten men were allowed to leave the building and go to Hebron’s ancient Jewish cemetery to conduct a funeral for any Jews murdered that day.
Following the massacre, the surviving Jews of Hebron were forced to leave their city and resettle in Jerusalem. A number of Jewish families tried to move back to Hebron, but were removed by the British authorities in 1936 at the start of the Arab revolt.
When Israel finally regained control of the city in 1967,a small number of survivors from the massacre again tried to reclaim their old Then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan supposedly told the survivors that if they returned, they would be arrested, and that they should be patient while the government worked out a solution to get their houses back. Years later, settlers moved to parts of Hebron without the permission of the government, but for those massacre survivors still seeking their original homes, that solution never came.
Early Sunday morning. The Abu Khadid family from Hebron begins renovating their shop on Shuhada Street – only a few dozen feet from the Cave of the Patriarchs.
A short while later, a group of settlers from the Jewish part of the city arrive on the scene. Armed with plastic furniture, they set
up two tables in front of the store’s entry and unpack light refreshments. The goal of their visit: To block access to the shop, in protest of its renovation.
IDF and police forces, who are well aware of the volatile atmosphere in the city, arrived almost instantly to see what was behind the improvised picnic, and formed a buffer between the two sides before things got out of hand.
A few minutes later, UN forces from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) arrived, followed by more representatives from watchdog organizations – most of them unheard of by the Israeli public – like The Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Eventually, with the exception of a few swear words, the crisis was averted.
This bizarre mix of settlers, Palestinians, soldiers, policemen, UN forces and Scandinavian-looking observers, coexists in a territory of 50 square feet. This may seem like the opening line of a joke, but life in the H-2 territory, the Israeli controlled part of Hebron, over the last 20 years has been anything but a comic relief.
This was especially true on Wednesday, exactly two decades after Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the Muslim prayer chamber in The Cave of the Patriarchs armed with an automatic rifle and opened fire. Twenty-nine Palestinians died and over a hundred were injured by the time the barrage of bullets had stopped, and Goldstein had been killed at the hands of his surviving victims. That fateful massacre changed the face of Hebron forever.
‘We’re the ones being punished’
Among the hundreds of worshipers who filled the prayer hall that deadly day was Kamal Al-Abadi, then 20-years-old, who worked in marketing for his family’s shoes manufacturing business. Now he is in a wheelchair, after a bullet pierced his throat and damaged his spine. After sustaining the paralyzing wound, Al-Abadi lost consciousness and awoke only several months later, in Jordan.
“The Jordanian doctor arrived and told me I better get used to the fact I won’t be able to walk anymore,” he recalled. From Israel, he said, he received a one-time compensation of NIS 100,000 ($ 28,400). He underwent physical therapy and now works as a clerk for the Palestinian Authority. He has devoted his life to promoting sports for the disabled and participates in international table tennis competition.
His city, on the other hand, never recovered. “We thought that the world would be on our side after the massacre, but we were the ones being punished again”.
It started with growing restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, as well as the closing of some their shops in fear of additional vengeance. After the Second Intifada, the IDF increased its segregation policy, forcing many to close their main street shops, which were deserted by the residents in favor of other areas.
In the boulevard of closed shops lives Moped Sharabati. “We had a store which sold Hookahs and charcoal. The day of the massacre was the last day it was opened,” he said while chain-smoking and lying on a bed in the living room of his bleak home.
Until then, he claims, his five brothers lived in the adjacent houses and the shop was the source of the family’s livelihood. “After the store closed, with the new and straining routine here, two of my brothers moved to the Palestinian part of Hebron and another brother moved to Ramallah”.
Have you also thought of leaving?
“I understand those who leave, but I will not buckle despite all the pressure. Somebody even offered us a check for NIS 1 million to evacuate our house”.
The two decades that have passed haven’t filled him with much optimism. “The world carried on since that day, but here nothing changed. Our lives stopped,” he complains, sparing no criticism from the Palestinian Authority: “We receive no support from them”.
Rather die here
Khaled Khativ, a neighbor who joined the conversion at the Sharabati residence, tries to remain positive nonetheless. “In the first few years after the settlers arrived, our relationship (with them) was tolerable,” he claimed. “I thought they were interested in living peacefully together, but over the years they left and in their place came a group of extremists with whom we are having all this trouble.”
The rest of the people in the room interrupted him, claiming that no one moves to somebody else’s territory with the intent to be neighborly. On one thing they could all agree: The massacre only strengthened the extremists on the Palestinian side and inspired suicide bombings inside Israel.
Again and again, the Palestinian residents described a feeling of abandonment. “Our lives became harder,” said Wadha Al-Bayed, an elderly woman, whose son Arafat was killed in the massacre.
According to her, The Red Cross used to hand out food to the needy, but had stopped doing so in recent years. Nowadays, she claims, only Hamas-owned charities continue to help. “That’s also not enough,” she added. “Anyone with children has already left and moved somewhere else, but I’ve stayed. I’d rather die in this house.”
The walk back from her house to The Cave of the Patriarchs painted a depressing image: The streets were empty, the shops were closed and the entrance was blocked with metal bars covered with Stars of David graffiti as well as the word “Hamas” in Arabic.
The entrances that once connected the north and south sides of town are now sealed off with cement blocks, and the silence is interrupted only once in a while by the sounds of a settler’s car, a military jeep or a vehicle belonging to a human rights organization, monitoring any interaction that could ignite the barrel of gunpowder, which is neatly referred to as H-2