The old city of Hebron is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Violence between Palestinians and the Jewish settlers who live under protection of the Israeli army is frequent. While visiting Hebron this summer, I spoke with a Palestinian man whose house had just been searched by the Israeli army for undisclosed reasons. He showed me his collection of exploded pipe bomb fragments, garbage, and snakes that he said were thrown at his building by settlers. He also showed me a photo of his wife, who had been fatally shot by a settler during the violence of the second Intifada. I asked why he was smiling. He told me he was happy and proud that she had been “martyred.”
To many, Hebron represents the bleak intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a defeatist attitude. Rather, Hebron is a stark reminder of what is at stake if a viable peace agreement is not achieved. The alternative to peace is perpetual instability and a reciprocal cycle of violence that threatens to boil over at any moment. Such a grim reality can be seen daily in Hebron.
Approximately 700 Jewish settlers, protected by around 4,000 Israeli army soldiers, live inside a city of approximately 170,000 Palestinians. Since the city was partitioned under the Hebron Protocol in 1997, most of the Palestinians have fled the old city to live in the area of Hebron, known as H1, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. In H2, the area under direct control of the Israeli military, street-to-street checkpoints restrict the freedom of Palestinian movement within their neighborhoods. Tension is high, and the area has proven to be a flashpoint for the escalation of more widespread conflict.
Hebron is considered holy by Muslims and Jews. The Tomb of the Patriarchs—the alleged burial site of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah—was partitioned in 1994 after the Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, attacked worshippers in the mosque. An Israeli-American member of the extremist Kach political movement, Goldstein killed 29 unarmed Palestinians and wounded another 125. The attack led to retaliatory suicide bombings carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israeli civilians, and directly contributed to the breakdown of a final status peace agreement under the Oslo Accords.
Similarly, recent violence in Hebron continues to jeopardize ongoing peace negotiations. A sniper shot and killed an Israeli soldier by the Tomb of the Patriarchs in September, sparking renewed clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army in Hebron. The violence soon spread to nearby villages and refugee camps.
The long-term alternative to a viable peace looks a lot like daily life in Hebron. For the Palestinians, this means the continued degradation of life under military occupation, settler violence, and a hopeless future without the right to self-determination. For Israelis, it is the uncertainty of growing demographic threats to a Jewish democratic state, international isolation, and the lurking specter of a third intifada or regional conflagration.
Israeli settlements, by escalating tension and putting Israelis and Palestinians in closer contact with one another, make the cycle of violence that doomed past peace negotiations more likely. Plans for new settlement construction in East Jerusalem threaten to cut a future Palestinian state off from its proposed capital. If completed, prospects for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders and a shared capital of Jerusalem will be effectively dead. The issues of borders, refugees, security and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state will become irrelevant if, due to Israeli settlement expansion, there is no longer a contiguous Palestinian state to negotiate over.
Israel cannot afford to become a garrison state locked in perpetual conflict with enemies both inside and outside of its borders. The United States is the only country capable of pressuring Israel to make the difficult, but necessary, concessions for peace. Secretary of State John Kerry recently called Israeli settlements—long considered illegal under international law and the Geneva Convention—illegitimate. This is an important step, but it does not go far enough.
While the Obama administration lacks the leverage in Congress to reduce aid to Israel, it can signal that U.S. political support is contingent on a serious commitment from the Netanyahu government to peace. Past American political support for Israel has been resolute—Washington has vowed to veto any Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations and voiced its opposition to a growing movement to boycott Israel. Unless Israel shows its commitment to peace by freezing settlement construction while talks are in progress, the United States should curb this unconditional support, forcing Israel to unilaterally bear the burden of its policies on the international stage.
Previous peace negotiations have been predicated on the idea of land for peace. Today, unwavering U.S. political support has allowed Israel to enjoy what can be termed land and peace—a level of security unparalleled in the country’s history, coupled with increased colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Without serious diplomatic pressure from Washington, the opportunity for a viable resolution to the conflict will slip away.
John Stafford is a first-year graduate student at GWU studying International Affairs with a regional concentration in the Middle East. He spent the past summer living with a Palestinian family in the H1 area of Hebron.
This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.