Hebron: The Tense City of Abraham’s Tomb
Jews and Muslims share an ancestor — they are all children of Abraham. The prophet Abraham is buried in Hebron, a lively market city of over 200,000 in the West Bank, with nearly a third of Palestine’s economy and a small, heavily-guarded Jewish community. Abraham’s tomb is shared by a mosque and a synagogue.
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As if rising out of those ancient olive groves, the ancient town of Hebron, with over 200,000 people, is the largest city in the West Bank. And it’s the bustling commercial capital, with nearly a third of the entire West Bank economy.
Just strolling the streets, dodging cars, and mixing with the people, I feel the energy of an economy that seems primed to grow. Commerce spills out everywhere. Exploring the market streets, I’m immersed in Palestinian life. Experiences like these are why we travel.
Along with all the market activity and commerce comes high security and tension. That’s because this city has the tomb of Abraham, so sacred to both Israelis and Palestinians.
Here, Jews live literally atop Palestinian Muslims as the two communities struggle to be near Abraham’s tomb. While the city is mostly Palestinian, a determined community of several hundred Israeli settlers have staked out the high ground, living in a settlement above the market. The tension between the communities is illustrated by a wire net that protects the Arab food and clothing market below from the garbage of the Jewish residents above.
Israeli troops are posted here to maintain control. Turnstiles and checkpoints are a way of life. A no-man’s-land with Jewish political art decorating closed buildings divides the two communities.
And it’s all about this very sacred and complicated site: an ancient structure capped by a medieval church, which now functions both as a mosque and a synagogue, holding the Tombs of Abraham and his family.
The focal point for both faiths is this: the tomb of Abraham. Poignantly, access for the feuding descendants of Abraham is divided by a pane of bullet-proof glass.
On one side of the glass Jews worship in the synagogue — the second most holy place in Judaism. It’s enlivened with singing, studying, and praying among the tombs of their great patriarchs.
And the other half is a mosque — where Muslims worship before their shared patriarch with equal fervor. Its exquisite mimber — where the imam stands to give sermons — is a rare original from the 12th century, with inlaid wood and no nails. Unfortunately, this holy place’s history has a tragic aura.
For centuries, Jews were generally not allowed to worship here. Then, after the Israeli victory in the War of 1967, the space was shared by Jews and Muslims. But during a Muslim service in 1994, an Israeli settler entered here with his gun, and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers. Since then, this holy space has been divided — emblematic of the difficult challenges that permeate the Holy Land.