Hebron (Al-Khalil in Arabic) is located 32 kilometers south of Jerusalem and is built on several hills and wadis, most of which run north-to-south. The Hebrew word Hebron is explained as being derived from the Hebrew word for friend (haver), a description for the Patriarch Abraham. The Arabic Al- Khalil, literally “the friend,” has a nearly identical derivation and also refers to Abraham (Ibrahim), whom Muslims similarly describe as the friend of God. Hebron is one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the world and has been a major focus of religious worship for over two millennia.
Hebron has a long and rich Jewish history. Numbers 13:22 states that (Canaanite) Hebron was founded seven years before the Egyptian town of Zoan, i.e. around 1720 BCE, and the ancient (Canaanite and Israelite) city of Hebron was situated at Tel Rumeida. The city’s history has been inseparably linked with the Cave of Machpelah, which the Patriarch Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite for 400 silver shekels (Genesis 23) as a family tomb. This was the first parcel of land owned by the Jewish people in their Promised Land. As recorded in Genesis, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, are buried there, and — according to a Jewish tradition — Adam and Eve are also buried there.
Hebron is mentioned 87 times in the Bible and is the world’s oldest Jewish community. Joshua assigned Hebron to Caleb from the tribe of Judah (Joshua 14:13-14), who subsequently led his tribe in conquering the city and its environs (Judges 1:1-20). As Joshua 14:15 notes, “the former name of Hebron was Kiryat Arba...”
Following the death of King Saul, God instructed David to go to Hebron, where he was anointed King of Judah (II Samuel 2:1-4) and reigned in the city for seven years before being anointed King over all Israel (II Samuel 5:1-3). One thousand years later, during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, the city was the scene of extensive fighting. Jews lived in Hebron continuously throughout the Byzantine, Arab, Mameluke and Ottoman periods and it was only in 1929 that the city became temporarily “free” of Jews as a result of an Arab pogrom in which 67 Jews were murdered and the remainder forced to flee. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Jewish community of Hebron was re-established.
The city was part of the united kingdom and — later — the southern Kingdom of Judah, until the latter fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Despite the loss of Jewish independence, Jews continued to live in Hebron (Nehemiah 11:25), and the city was later incorporated into the (Jewish) Hasmonean kingdom by John Hyrcanus. King Herod (reigned 37-4 BCE) built the base of the present structure — the 12 meter high wall — over the Tomb the Patriarchs.
The city was the scene of extensive fighting during the Jewish Revolt against the Romans (65-70, see Josephus 4:529, 554), but Jews continued to live there after the Revolt, through the later Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), and into the Byzantine period. The remains of a synagogue from the Byzantine period have been excavated in the city, and the Byzantines built a large church over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, incorporating the pre- existing Herodian structure.
In October 2018, a new archaeological site opened at Tel Hebron where the walls of the city from the Early and Middle Bronze Age were excavated, as well as buildings from the Early Roman period, including pottery vessels, jewelry and coins. Workshops from the First Temple period, including wine and olive presses, pottery kilns and huge vessels to produce wine and oil were also discovered. Other findings include a four-chamber house, jars bearing ancient Hebrew inscriptions with words “to the king of Hebron” and a section of the city wall.
Jews continued to live in Hebron after the city’s conquest by the Arabs (in 638), whose generally tolerant rule was welcomed, especially after the often-harsh Byzantine rule. The Arabs converted the Byzantine church at the Tomb the Patriarchs into a mosque.
Upon capturing the city in 1100, the Crusaders expelled the Jewish community, and converted the mosque at the Tomb back into a church. The Jewish community was re-established following the Mamelukes’ conquest of the city in 1260, and the Mamelukes reconverted the church at the Tomb of the Patriarchs back into a mosque. However, the restored Islamic (Mameluke) ascendancy was less tolerant than the pre-Crusader Islamic (Arab) regimes — a 1266 decree barred Jews (and Christians) from entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs, allowing them only to ascend to the fifth, later the seventh, step outside the eastern wall. The Jewish cemetery — on a hill west of the Tomb — was first mentioned in a letter dated to 1290.
The Ottoman Turks’ conquest of the city in 1517 was marked by a violent pogrom which included many deaths, rapes, and the plundering of Jewish homes. The surviving Jews fled to Beirut and did not return until 1533. In 1540, Jewish exiles from Spain acquired the site of the “Court of the Jews” and built the Avraham Avinu (“Abraham Our Father”) synagogue. (One year — according to local legend — when the requisite quorum for prayer was lacking, the Patriarch Abraham himself appeared to complete the quorum; hence, the name of the synagogue.)
Despite the events of 1517, its general poverty and a devastating plague in 1619, the Hebron Jewish community grew. Throughout the Turkish period (1517-1917), groups of Jews from other parts of the Land of Israel, and the Diaspora, moved to Hebron, joining the existing community, and the city became a rabbinic center of note.
In 1775, the Hebron Jewish community was rocked by a blood libel, in which Jews were falsely accused of murdering the son of a local sheikh. The community — which was largely sustained by donations from abroad — was forced to pay a crushing fine, which further worsened its already shaky economic situation.
Despite its poverty, the community managed, in 1807, to purchase a 5-dunam plot — upon which the city’s wholesale market stands today — and after several years the sale was recognized by the Hebron Waqf. In 1811, 800 dunams of land were acquired to expand the cemetery. In 1817, the Jewish community numbered approximately 500 and, by 1838, it had grown to 700, despite a pogrom which took place in 1834, during Mohammed Ali’s rebellion against the Ottomans (1831-1840).
In 1870, a wealthy Turkish Jew, Haim Yisrael Romano, moved to Hebron and purchased a plot of land upon which his family built a large residence and guest house, which came to be called Beit Romano. The building later housed a synagogue and served as a yeshiva, before it was seized by the Turks. During the Mandatory period, the building served the British administration as a police station, remand center, and court house.
In 1893, the building later known as Beit Hadassah was built by the Hebron Jewish community as a clinic, and a second floor was added in 1909. The Hadassah organization contributed the salaries of the clinic’s medical staff, who served both the city’s Jewish and Arab populations.
During World War I, before the British occupation, the Jewish community suffered greatly under the wartime Turkish administration. Young men were forcibly conscripted into the Turkish army, overseas financial assistance was cut off, and the community was threatened by hunger and disease. However, with the establishment of the British administration in 1918, the community, reduced to 430 people, began to recover. In 1925, Rabbi Mordechai Epstein established a new yeshiva, and by 1929, the population had risen to 700 again.
On August 23, 1929, local Arabs devastated the Jewish community by perpetrating a vicious, large-scale, organized, pogrom. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica:
The assault was well planned, and its aim was well defined: the elimination of the Jewish settlement of Hebron. The rioters did not spare women, children, or the aged; the British gave passive assent. Sixty-seven were killed, 60 wounded, the community was destroyed, synagogues razed, and Torah scrolls burned.
A total of 59 of the 67 victims were buried in a common grave in the Jewish cemetery (including 23 who had been murdered and dismembered in one house alone), and the surviving Jews fled to Jerusalem. (During the violence, Haj Issa el-Kourdieh — a local Arab who lived in a house in the Jewish Quarter — sheltered 33 Jews in his basement and protected them from the rioting mob.)
In 1931, 31 Jewish families returned to Hebron and re-established the community. This effort was short-lived, however, and, in April 1936, fearing another massacre, the British authorities evacuated the community.
Following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the invasion by Arab armies, Hebron was captured and occupied by the Jordanian Arab Legion. During the Jordanian occupation, which lasted until 1967, Jews were not permitted to live in the city, nor — despite the Armistice Agreement — to visit or pray at the Jewish holy sites in the city. Additionally, the Jordanian authorities and local residents undertook a systematic campaign to eliminate any evidence of the Jewish presence in the city. They razed the Jewish Quarter, desecrated the Jewish cemetery and built an animal pen on the ruins of the Avraham Avinu synagogue.
On April 4, 1968, a group of Jews registered at the Park Hotel in the city. The next day they announced that they had come to re- establish Hebron’s Jewish community. The actions sparked a nationwide debate and drew support from across the political spectrum. After an initial period of deliberation, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s Labor-led government decided to temporarily move the group into a near-by IDF compound, while a new community — to be called Kiryat Arba — was built adjacent to Hebron. The first 105 housing units were ready in the autumn of 1972.
In the decade following the Six Day War, when the euphoria of the victory had subsided, Judea and Samaria were still largely unsettled by Jews. Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of like-minded individuals determined that the time had come to return home to the newly liberated heartland of Eretz Yisrael. Word of the decision spread quickly and soon a nucleus of families was formed. Their objective was to spend Pesach in Hebron’s Park Hotel.
Hebron’s Arab hotel owners had fallen on hard times. For years they had served the Jordanian aristocracy who would visit regularly to enjoy Hebron’s cool dry air. The Six Day War forced the vacationers to change their travel plans. As a result, the Park Hotel’s Arab owners were delighted to accept the cash-filled envelope which Rabbi Levinger placed on the front desk. In exchange, they agreed to rent the hotel to an unlimited amount of people for an unspecified period.
In April 1968, the Levingers and the other families who had gathered, cleaned and kashered the half of the hotel’s kitchen allotted to them and began to settle in. “Eighty-eight people celebrated Passover Seder that night in the heart of Hebron. ‘We sensed that we had made an historical breakthrough,” Miriam Levinger recalled, “and we all felt deeply moved and excited.”
That same year, a Palestinian threw a grenade at Jews praying at the tomb, wounding 47, among them an 8-month-old child.
A little over ten years later, in April 1979, a group of Jews from Kiryat Arba moved into Beit Hadassah. Following a deadly terrorist attack in May 1980 in which six Jews returning from prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs were murdered, and 20 wounded, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s Likud-led government agreed to refurbish Beit Hadassah, and to permit Jews to move into the adjacent Beit Chason and Beit Schneerson, in the old Jewish Quarter. An additional floor was built on Beit Hadassah, and 11 families moved in during 1986.
Since that time, the city has been the scene of violence on several occasions. In 2001, 10-month old Shalhevet Pass was shot in her stroller by a sniper. In 2003, a pregnant Israeli woman and her husband were killed when a suicide-bomber detonated next to them in the market on Shuhada Street.
Today, Hebron has a population of approximately 160,000 Palestinians, mostly Sunni Muslims. The Jewish community is comprised of roughly 700 people, including approximately 150 yeshiva students. An additional 6,650 Jews live in the adjacent community of Kiryat Arba.
Local administration and services for the Hebron Jewish community are provided by the Hebron Municipal Committee, which was established by the Defense and Interior Ministries, and whose functions are like those of Israel’s regular local councils. The Ministry of Housing and Construction has established the “Association for the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron,” to carry out projects in the city. The Association is funded both through the state budget and by private contributions. It deals with general development of, and for, the Jewish community.
In addition to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Tel Rumeida, the Jewish cemetery, and the historical residences of the city, other Jewish sites in Hebron include the Tomb of Ruth and Jesse (King David’s father) which is located on a hillside overlooking the cemetery; the site of the Terebinths of Mamre (“Alonei Mamre”) from Genesis 18:1, where God appeared to Abraham, which is located about 400 meters from the Glass Junction (Herodian, Roman, and Byzantine remains mark the site today); King David’s Pool (also known as the Sultan’s Pool), which is located about 200 meters south of the road to the entrance of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which Jews hold to be the pool referred to in II Samuel 4:12; the Tomb of Abner, Saul and David’s general, which is located near the Tomb; and the Tomb of Othniel Ben Kenaz, the first Judge of Israel (Judges 3:9-11).
Hebron’s climate has, since Biblical times, encouraged extensive agriculture. Farmers in the Hebron region usually cultivate fruits such as grapes and plums. In addition to agriculture, the local economy relies on handicraft, small- and medium-scale industry and construction. Hebron is also one of the most important marketplaces in the Palestinian Authority.
In January 1997, after nearly thirty years of controlling the city, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew from 80 percent of the Hebron municipal territory. This redeployment, originally agreed upon in the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) of September 1995, was postponed for several months, until a new agreement – the “Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron” – was reached.
In the Hebron Protocol, a distinction is made between Hebron’s “H1” and “H2” areas. The status of the largest part of the city, “H1,” is similar to the one pertaining to “Area A.” The Palestinian Police Forces (PPF) exercise full control over “H1,” which the IDF is not allowed to enter unless escorted by Palestinian security forces. The IDF maintains indirect control over this part of the city by occasionally establishing checkpoints at entrances or by closing these points of access. “H1” covers residential sectors as well as the commercial areas of Bab Al-Zawiya and Wadi Al-Tuffah, situated west of the Old City.
In the remaining part of the city, “H2,” Israel maintains a military presence and controls various aspects of Palestinian daily life. Palestinian civil institutions operate under certain restrictions imposed by the Israeli military administration. When it comes to the PPF, they are only present when they participate in joint patrols led by the IDF.
“H2” covers approximately 20 percent of the municipal territory. It comprises the entire Qasba and areas adjacent to the Jewish settlements. The population in this area is composed of an estimated 30,000-35,000 Palestinians and approximately 400 Jews. This relatively small sector is the geographic, economic, historic and religious center of Hebron.
Located northeast of the Old City, the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah is included in the area under Israeli control, as are Islamic institutions, and a number of old mosques.
Shuhada Street (“Martyr’s Street” in Arabic) is a small road in the Old City running through “H2” connecting the western and eastern parts of the city. It was once the site of a bustling Palestinian marketplace before the city was divided. The traffic on this street is tightly controlled by the IDF to protect the 85 Jewish families in the neighborhood. Various restrictions are imposed on Palestinian motorists who want to use it. A bus station used to be located along Shuhada Street but was closed in 1986 and subsequently turned into an Israeli military compound. Palestinians who are not residents of H-2 are not allowed on Shuhada Street.
Despite being located inside the Israeli-controlled area of the city, the Souq situated inside the Qasba and behind Shuhada Street remains one of the busiest in the West Bank. However, the wholesale vegetables market (Al-Hisbe), adjacent to the Souq, has also been closed by Israel, due to security considerations.
The Qasba itself is no longer among the most densely populated areas of the city. Since the first half of the twentieth century, its population dropped from 8,000 to a few hundred. To reverse this evolution, the Palestinian local authorities have, since 1997, made a continuous effort to renovate, rehabilitate and develop the Old City. This led to an increase in the number of families moving into the Qasba. Similarly, efforts are being made to highlight its cultural heritage.
On Ein Sarah Street in H1, just a few blocks away from the old market, is a thriving Arab commercial district. As Steve Frank observed:
The question of who should control the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah is among the most sensitive issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since the Islamic conquest of the region, in the seventh century, the site is predominantly revered by Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the Abraham Sanctuary or Ibrahimi Mosque. For seven centuries, its access was restricted to Muslim worshippers only. Jewish pilgrims could pray at a special location outside the building.
During the 1967 War, on the same day the Israeli troops entered Hebron, the IDF chaplain placed a Torah scroll inside the mosque. This initiative made it possible for Jews to hold prayers and religious services in various parts of the sanctuary – sometimes at the same time and place as the Muslims. This provoked widespread indignation as the Muslims maintained the installation of a synagogue inside the sanctuary challenged the Muslim character of the site.
The need for separation between Jews and Muslims and sensitive management of access to their respective holy places was accentuated by the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers by a Kiryat Arba settler, Baruch Goldstein, in February 1994. The killing was denounced through Israel. An Israeli commission headed by Meir Shamgar examined the circumstances of the bloodshed and recommended a number of new arrangements, such as the establishment of a physical separation between the worshippers of the two communities and the tightening of the security checks at the entrances. It was also decided that on an equal number of days a year, the holy place would be reserved for members of one community only.
Every year thousands of Jewish Israelis and visitors come to Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs to mark the reading of the Torah portion Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18) which discusses Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of the Patriarchs to bury Sarah.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry; Temporary International Presence in Hebron;
“From Bronze Age To First Temple: Archaeological Site Set To Open In Hebron,” Jerusalem Post, (October 16, 2018);
At least 40,000 Jews gather in Hebron to mark biblical purchase of Cave of the Patriarchs, JTA, (November 4, 2018);
Steve Frank, “The myth of Hebron’s Shuhada Street,” Blitz, (July 23, 2019).
Tel Hebron Photo: Israeli Civil Administration Spokesperson