Reporter's notebook

Eating hummus with Salafists in Hebron

Welcome to a Bizarro World where Islamic radicals call for ecumenical peace, and kids try to go to jail to get an education

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Arab women walk by an Israeli soldier patrolling in the divided West Bank city of Hebron. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Arab women walk by an Israeli soldier patrolling in the divided West Bank city of Hebron. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

HEBRON, West Bank — Almost every Friday, and sometimes in the middle of the week, the ceremony repeats itself. It starts after the midday prayers at the mosques in the center of town. One stone, thrown at IDF soldiers by one of the bitter residents of the Israeli-controlled H-2 section of Hebron, summons another stone in its wake, then hundreds more. IDF troops, familiar with the drill, try to push the stone-throwers back into H-1, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Then it’s the turn of the liaison officers. The head of the IDF Coordination Office, Lt. Colonel Avi Biton, or one of his people, reaches out to one of his Palestinian counterparts, who, in turn, sends a Palestinian police contingent to the area to break up the demonstration. Sometimes, the PA policemen manage to end the incident quickly; at other times, it only peters out after several hours.

The level of trust between the sides is high enough that if the situation gets out of hand, the Palestinians will contact the Israelis to inform them that they are unable to handle the incident, and will clear the area to allow IDF troops to do their thing.

A similar pattern takes place with arrests in Hebron. If Israel wants to question someone in Palestinian territory, PA forces will be updated a moment before the operation, and will be asked to stay inside the police stations during the arrest.

This situation sounds highly implausible given the endless barbs swapped by leaders on both sides, but the reality of the security relationship is different. In this area, cooperation works, and it is reflected too in the operations by Palestinian security forces against common enemies like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Only recently, Hamas forces tried to take over several mosques in the city and control the wording of the sermons, but PA forces prevented them from doing so. This comes in addition to the ongoing arrests and the attacks prevented by the PA, and is all the more noteworthy since Hebron is thought of as a Hamas stronghold.

The reality in this city — 80 percent controlled by the PA, and 20 percent by Israel — seems almost unbelievable. No Hollywood movie could accurately capture the daily routine here.

A group of IDF soldiers from the Nahal Brigade marches through the Kasbah, with the battalion commander at the head, greeting Palestinian passersby, especially the merchants, who seem to know him. One of the old men sitting in front of his store curses him and the soldiers. “God should take you away; you ruined us,” he says.

View of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Tel Rumeida neighborhood in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron. (photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90)
View of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Tel Rumeida neighborhood in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron. (photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90)

One of the shops in the Kasbah is built directly under the Jewish Avraham Avinu neighborhood. Across the way, on the slopes of the Abu Sninah neighborhood, dozens of Palestinians are trying to sell bedsheets in the local flea market.

Up on the hill, in an area belonging to the Jabari clan, lunch is taking place at the home of Ashraf Jabari, one of its heads.

Ashraf, like many in his family, maintains close contacts in the Israeli coordination office, in an attempt to deal with daily problems. One issue that arose recently was the request of Muslim worshipers to build an elevator for the handicapped and the elderly at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, so they wouldn’t have to climb so many steps. For reasons that remain unclear — likely a lack of desire on both sides to change the status quo — no agreement was reached on the elevator.

Jabari’s guests emphasize that there is no desire for a Third Intifada among the city’s residents. At the same time, they say that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cannot give up the right of return.

“This is an individual right, not a public one,” says one.

Two men enter the room at the Jabari home, conspicuous in their unique dress. A quick clarification reveals that they are from the Salafist religious movement a-Dawa wa a-Tablir. It is a small group that is gaining momentum, primarily in Hebron, but also in other locations, including inside Israel. But they are neither terrorists, like Salafi jihadists, nor political, like Hizb ut-Tahrir; rather, they focus on religion and charity exclusively.

Still, it is not a foregone conclusion that they would meet with an Israeli. They slowly enter the conversation, and primarily criticize Abbas and his choice for the Religious Affairs Ministry, Mahmoud al-Habash.

“We don’t want political or extremist activities,” one of them says. “We are interested in a better Islam and in charity. We have people living with nothing, who are ready to carry out a suicide bombing, and we have to influence them, to make them more moderate.”

And all the while, a debate runs amongst the other guests over where the better hummus and knafeh can be found — Hebron or Nablus.

Jewish settlers walk by an IDF base in Hebron. (Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Jewish settlers walk by an IDF base in Hebron. (Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The guests speak about the Palestinian youths who have no future and choose to show up at an IDF checkpoint with a knife in order to be arrested and, thereby, gain an adequate education in — of all places — an Israeli prison.

“We give people food and education and don’t ask for a thing, except that they believe in Allah. Our goal is to live in peace, and we have to build a connection between all religions in order to make that happen,” say the pleasant Salafi sheikhs, then add, “Inshallah.”

Everyone in this crazy city is mixed in with everyone else. Radical settlers, Hamas supporters, Fatah members, moderate Salafists and al-Qaeda supporters.

And all the while, Nahal soldiers continue to patrol the alleyways, in an attempt to understand what in the name of God and Allah is going on here.

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