Palestinian outrage over Israel’s declaration of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb as national shrines, has the aura of true political farce about it. Oh yes, Palestinian national identity has been wounded; the concept of national co-existence has been assaulted and the very basis of common diplomatic civility has been upended. Saeeb Erekat, that master of Palestinian spin, has stated: “The unilateral decision to make Palestinian sites in Hebron and Bethlehem part of Israel shows there is no genuine partner for peace, but an occupying power intent on consolidating Palestinian land. “ Not to be outdone, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has engaged in his own form of sabre rattling, threatening war over the move.
Well, par for the course. Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously stated that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But I believe just the opposite. Palestinians regularly seize opportunities to pound out public relations victories for themselves, all in the interests of establishing credibility for illegitimate claims and validating absurd revisionist history.
So maybe a history lesson is in order. The Cave of the Patrarchs and Rachel’s Tomb are the ancestral burial grounds of the Jewish people’s forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives. They have been the site of constant reverence since Biblical rimes and are the second holiest sites in Judaism outside of the Temple Mount. Jews have maintained a constant presence in Hebron for at least 3,000 years, save for a 37 year interregnum in which the British Mandatory power forcibly moved the entire Jewish community of the city to Jerusalem. This occured after 69 Jews were slaughtered, raped and despoiled in the most vicious antisemitic Arab attack in modern Middle East history.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Jews began to return to Hebron to rebuild the abandoned Jewish quarter there and to construct the Jewish suburb of Kiryat Arba, situated a quarter of a mile distant. Jewish control of Hebron and stewardship of the Caves has meant equal access to all religions with as much respect lent to Muslim practices and rights of access as Jewish. Indeed, if one travels to Hebron today, he might be mistaken for thinking the shrine there not Jewish but Muslim, so prevalent are Arabic signs and Muslim devotional emblems.
This is all, of course, in marked contrast to Palestinian control of exclusively Jewish religious sites. In 2001, during the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Joseph’s Tomb, situated in Nablus ( Shechem) and the site of a prominent yeshiva, was sacked and looted by Palestinian militia. Torah scrolls were desecrated, holy books were used as toilet paer and the entire place was torched. An Israeli soldier bled to death defending the tomb as the Palestinian crowed “Death to the Jews!”
The Jordanians did not disport themselves any better. After the capture of the Jewish Quarter of Jeruslaem’s Old City in May, 1948, the Jordanians went purposively from synagogue to synagogue, setting them on fire with all their contents. Between 1948 and 1967, 34 out of 35 synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were sacked; the area abutting the Western Wall was deliberately turned into a slum; and of the 50,000 Jewish tombstones on the Mount of Olives, no fewer than 38,000 were smashed or used as paving stones for army latrines and roads.
Small wonder that, soon after uniting Jerusalem, Israel passed a law protecting the Holy Places of all religions against desecration and ensuring freedom of access and prayer.
Of course the real Palestinian argument is about land rights and not shrine rights. That argument is not likely to be resolved any time soon. But even if the notion that this is Palestinian land is conceded ( which, at least here, it is not), the fundamental question remains as to whether any nation has the right to maintain the graves of either its ancestors or its fallen soldiers on territory that it no longer controls. Should , for instance, the American government cede control of its eleven military cemeteries in France, in places such as the Meuse-Argonne in Verdun, Colleville-sur Mer in Normandy or Suresnes near Paris? Should the Australians cede control to Turkey over their cemeteries at Gallipoli or the British of their hundred of graveyards throughout the former British empire?
The Israelis decided to extend national protective status to these ancient shrines because they know that, in any future dispostion of the territories in question, Jewish rights of access may in practise never be guaranteed. For unlike the United States in France and the Australians in Turkey, the Israelis do not have the luxury of knowing that the would-be custodians of a national heritage site will also respect Jewish national memory. In fact, they are painfully aware that these sites may fact suffer a form of violation for which Arabs throughout the centuries have demonstrated a particular proclivity.
Mahmoud Abbas and Saeeb Erekat do not need the excuse of this new national designation to go to war. They have been at war all their lives with the very notion of a Jewish state. Shrines or no shrines, their modus operandi is to use any excuse to castigate Israeli actions as a provocation. The Cave of the Patriachs and Rachel’s Tomb, holy to Jew and Muslim alike, should have become, rather than a casus belli , a symbol of cooperation and respect between the two communities. Sadly, there is only one side of the conflict that responds in this way. In the absence of such neccessary mutual respect and understanding, the Israelis are absolutely correct to extend national sovereignty to these irreplacable shrines.