HEBRON, West Bank — During a rare visit to Hebron on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israelis would remain in the flashpoint West Bank city forever, but stopped short of announcing new construction in the area as Jewish locals and right-wing lawmakers have been demanding.
The premier also entered the Tomb of Patriarchs, along with his wife Sara, in what was his first visit there as prime minister.
“Hebron will never be cleansed of Jews… We are not strangers in Hebron. We will remain here forever,” Netanyahu declared at a ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of the Hebron massacre, in which Arab rioters murdered 67 of their Jewish neighbors in the ancient city.
Netanyahu also avoided declaring his intention to extend Israeli sovereignty to Hebron, as fellow Likud lawmakers Yuli Edelstein and Miri Regev had urged in their respective visits to the city earlier in the day.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu said that his government would enact “Jewish sovereignty” over West Bank settlements, but during the Wednesday visit sufficed by saying: “We have not come here to dispossess anyone, but no one will dispossess us either.”
In the weeks leading up the visit, Hebron settlers and right-wing lawmakers launched a campaign urging Netanyahu to approve an Israeli construction plan in the Old City of Hebron’s disputed market.
In November of last year, then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman announced that his office’s legal adviser had adopted an opinion that would allow Hebron’s settlers to return to the market, which Jews owned well before the establishment of the State of Israel but fled after the 1929 Hebron massacre.
After the 1948 War of Independence, Jordan leased the market stalls to Palestinians and gave them protected tenancy. That special status was upheld through the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel gained military control of the West Bank, and continued past 1994, when Israeli courts rejected attempts by Jewish residents to reoccupy shops that had been shuttered by the IDF.
The market became the heart of commercial life for Palestinians in the Old City of Hebron, but it was closed following a 1994 terror attack at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in which Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshipers. At the time, the IDF assessed that Palestinians would attempt to carry out reprisal attacks against Israelis living in the nearby Avraham Avinu neighborhood.
In the 1997 Hebron Protocol that he signed with Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu committed to re-opening the wholesale market in order to allow the “normalization of life” in the Old City. However, that commitment was never upheld for security reasons.
Defense Ministry legal adviser Itai Ophir determined that since the “political-security” situation makes the re-opening of the market unlikely in the foreseeable future, Israel is allowed to demolish the shops and build residential buildings for Israelis in their stead. The Palestinian shops could then be rebuilt above them.
Netanyahu’s approval is still needed to move forward with the plan, but even then, the Palestinian municipality in Hebron is expected to petition the High Court of Justice against such construction.
The Peace Now settlement watchdog panned the proposal to approve building where the wholesale market stands.
“The common settler refrain is that they are merely ‘coming back to live in their ancient homeland,’ yet this explanation entirely ignores the context of how their living in the West Bank perpetuates Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians at the cost of the latter’s freedom,” the left-wing NGO said, adding that such a project would impose a security burden on the IDF which would be forced to guard an additional Jewish compound in the heart of the volatile city of some 200,000 Palestinians.
In addition to construction in the market, Hebron residents have urged the government to make the Tomb of the Patriarchs wheelchair-accessible.
At this week’s weekly cabinet meeting, Education Minister and Yamina MK Rafi Peretz urged Netanyahu to cede to one of the demands. The premier told Peretz to find out which of the two projects the settlers’ want more and to get back to him.
Netanyahu told the crowd of roughly one hundred in Hebron on Wednesday that he was “looking into” the two matters, leading to immediate rebuke from Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich, who tweeted from his seat in the crowd that neither of the demands would ever be met if “Yamina won’t be strong enough after the elections to pressure him.”
Yamina chairwoman Ayelet Shaked piled on, calling Netanyahu’s declarations of permanent Israeli presence in Hebron “only words. Even wheelchair accessibility to the Tomb of the Patriarchs he didn’t approve.”
Netanyahu preferred to focus on what he had already achieved for Hebron, saying he was “proud of the fact that [his] government approved the construction plan in Hebron’s Jewish Quarter last year, which will include dozens of homes.”
Construction of the 31 homes, two kindergartens, a daycare center and a public park in what was once an IDF base in the Hezekiah Quarter of Hebron, has yet to begin and still faces several legal hurdles.
Netanyahu also boasted about last week’s return of Israeli settlers to the disputed Machpela House near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, after a Defense Ministry committee authorized their purchase of half the compound.
However, the occupancy of the compound nearly a year and a half after squatting settlers were ordered to leave appears to have been premature, given that an additional legal step is required to determine which part of the home now belongs to them.
Despite the criticism from Yamina MKs, a spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron said he felt the prime minister made a “wise” decision in not making any declarations at the ceremony.
“He would’ve been accused of using the 90th anniversary of the murders as a political platform and they would’ve said, ‘Look he came to Hebron, just to gather votes,'” Yishai Fleisher said.
At the same, the Hebron spokesman acknowledged that the Jewish community “wants more” from the prime minister.
“We want you to rectify the mistake you made by agreeing to give the Palestinian Authority 97% of Hebron,” Fleisher added.
Under the Hebron Protocol signed by Netanyahu and the Palestinians in January 1997, the West Bank’s most populous city was divided into two sections. H1 includes 80 percent of the city and lies under full Palestinian control. In H2, 800 Israeli settlers live in fortified compounds heavily guarded by the IDF amid 40,000 Palestinians, whose movements are highly restricted.
Still, Fleisher said that “the very fact that he came here allows us to show the beauty and normalcy of this place.”
Wednesday’s event marked the first time a prime minister addressed the state ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The last time an Israeli prime minister stepped foot in Hebron was in 1998 when Netanyahu, in his first term, paid a condolence call to the family of Shlomo Ra’anan, who was killed in a terror attack.
Netanyahu’s visit was blasted by the Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry as “colonial” and “provocative.”
Their statement also claimed Netanyahu was undertaking the visit to lobby for votes from the “right and extreme right” ahead of the national elections later in September.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassim wrote on Facebook that “Netanyahu’s announcement of his intention to storm Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque is a gross assault on the Muslim nation’s feelings.”
“Hebron, Jerusalem and all of Palestine’s cities are totally Arab and the occupation’s attempts to change their identity, history, origin will not succeed,” Qassim added.
The ceremony concluded a day of events marking the 90th anniversary, which included a speech from President Reuven Rivlin earlier in the afternoon at the Hebron cemetery where the massacre victims are buried. Knesset Speaker Edelstein also took part in a ceremony to hang up a mezuzah — a rolled up scroll of parchment that Jewish families hang on the frame of their front doors — at the Machpela House.
Rivlin had been scheduled to be present at the ceremony along with Netanyahu, but his office announced earlier in the day that scheduling complications forced him to pull out. Hebrew media reported officials in Rivlin’s office clarifying that even had the president’s schedule permitted him to attend the event, he would’ve opted out due to its “distinct political nature” just two weeks before the election. Regardless, Rivlin managed to make it to Hebron earlier in the day and addressed an earlier cerimony marking the anniversary of the Hebron massacre.
“The State of Israel must promote quality of life for all residents of the area, to assure that Hebron and Kiryat Arba grow and flourish, and to establish new neighborhoods,” he said in his speech, insisting that the flashpoint West Bank city is not an obstacle to peace, but a coexistence test for Israelis and Palestinians.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this article.