President Isaac Herzog said Sunday that the Jewish connection to Hebron is “unquestionable,” as he lit a menorah for the first night of Hanukkah at a shrine in the West Bank city, while dozens of left-wing protesters gathered nearby.
Demonstrators protesting the president’s visit to the contested city had been blocked by troops from entering Hebron itself, where the Tomb of the Patriarchs is located. A rarely used order meant to head off public disturbances was applied to the entrance to the Kiryat Arba settlement, the main access route to the holy site.
Speaking at the shrine, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs and known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, Herzog said the Jewish connection to the city and the tomb are “beyond all controversy.”
“The historic connection of Jews to Hebron, to the tomb of the patriarch, to the heritage of the patriarchs and matriarchs is unquestionable. Recognition of this connection must be beyond all controversy,” he said.
At the same time, he also appealed to the shared heritage between Jews and Muslims, despite ever-present tensions in the city, which have been heightened around his heavily secured visit.
“You won’t agree about everything, but we need to remember that ‘we are all one man’s sons,’” he said according to a statement from his office, quoting from the Bible.
“We all have shared roots from this cave. Alongside that, we have to remember that our roots are not the only ones that go back to this cave. Especially today, and especially here, in this holy space dedicated to all sons of Abraham, we have to continue dreaming of peace, between all faiths and creeds in this land, and to condemn any type of hatred or violence,” he added.
The left-wing activists protested with signs in Hebrew and English accusing Israel of apartheid and calling to “banish the darkness,” in reference to a famous Hanukkah children’s song.
“While the president lights a candle with Baruch Marzel and the Kahanists, security forces are preventing law-abiding citizens from exercising their right to protest,” the Peace Now organization said, referring to an ultranationalist former politician now banned from running for the Knesset, who was reportedly present at the shrine on Sunday.
Herzog’s candle lighting also angered the left-wing Meretz party, a member of the governing coalition.
“Unfortunately in Kiryat Arba, the police blocked us violently, and proved to us that Hebron is not part of Israel,” Meretz MK Mossi Raz tweeted.
— שלום עכשיו (@PeaceNowIL) November 28, 2021
The site is considered holy by both Jews and Muslims and is used for prayers by worshipers of both faiths. It has been a major flashpoint for violence.
Ahead of Herzog’s visit, the Hamas terror group warned that the plan to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah at the shrine was “a provocation” and “a flagrant violation” of the site’s sanctity, while calling on Palestinians to confront Israeli forces at the scene.
In a statement, Hamas said that “the occupation bears full responsibility for the repercussions of this attack” on the site.
Dovish Israeli organizations Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Crime Minister, Mothers Against Violence, and others said that the visit by the president to Hebron “legitimizes the apartheid regime and non-stop violence by settlers, under which the Palestinian residents of the city live.”
They asserted that Herzog was giving a tailwind to “Jewish terror supporters and to the great injustice taking place there on a daily basis,” accusing the president of prostrating himself before the right to curry its favor.
Peace Now added that “it is inconceivable that the president, who should be a unifying figure, is choosing to light a candle at the site that, of all places, has become the bastion of Kahanism and a symbol of oppression and violence.”
Herzog, formerly the head of the Jewish Agency, previously served in the Knesset as a leading center-left politician and opposition leader.
He assumed the mostly ceremonial presidency in July, and has taken an active approach to the role, including by lobbying UK leaders to take a hard line against Iran in meetings in London this week.
The site of the tomb, considered one of the holiest in Judaism, is believed to have been used as a burial plot by the biblical patriarch Abraham.
Hebron, in the southern West Bank, is the largest city in the West Bank and home to about 1,000 settlers, who live under heavy military protection, among more than 200,000 Palestinians.
The city is mostly controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but the area of the tomb and adjacent areas are controlled by Israel.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is frequented by Jews during Shabbat and holidays and often under military protection. It, and the nearby area, have been the site of numerous attacks and attempted attacks against Israelis.
It is also the site of one of the worst incidents of settler violence against Palestinians, the 1994 massacre carried out by far-right extremist Baruch Goldstein, who opened fire during prayers, killing 29 people and wounding more than 100.